Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shakarkandi (Spicy Sweet Potato)

Lahore, beloved. My adopted city. 25th largest in the world. Steeped in history. The food and cultural capital of the country, a city of crowded tree-lined roads and pulsating bazaars. Lahore gets under your skin, makes you fall in love with its faded elegance; winding, bumpy, messy streets, its shady gardens and even the noisy hum of its bazaars. 

Walking through the narrow, colorful alleys of dupatta gali in winter, your senses are constantly teased by the wafting, pungent aromas of samosas and masala chips frying or saccharine-sweet tea brewing as your ears adjust to the sounds of women chatting with their companions or bargaining with vendors over the loud and incessant sounds of electricity generators humming, filmi music blaring, and dozens of sewing machines buzzing in unison. As you stroll, stopping to glance at a fabric or a sample of embroidery, a vendor will call after you, "Would you look at this? Touch and feel how smooth it is .. it came in just yesterday .. I have the best price ..  but wait! At least look! You won't find this anywhere .. O Baji! (sister) Stop!". He may jog a short distance behind you, fabric in hand, convincing you to stop and consider. Or his pleas will be taken up by his competitors, "You want a Pashmina shawl? Is it winter fabric you want? I have this new Marina fabric ... just look!". You might stop, after all, curiosity getting the better of you. Or, if you are like me, you will want to get away from the dizzying bright displays of sequins and bangles, glittering embroidery and all that noise and step out to the street - wind your way between impatiently honking, stalled traffic and head over to where the smoke is rising from a thela (push-cart) displaying baked sweet potatoes and clementines decorated around a heap of hot charcoal

Photo Credit: www.dawn.com
"Dass rupay ki Shakarkandi (10 Rupees worth of sweet potato)", you request the thela-waala (peddlar/street hawker) and then watch as he dumps a sweet potato into the mound of coals, pokes it a few times, digs it out and places it on a layer of torn newspaper in his left hand while he quickly slashes it with his right one, cubing it, he shakes a zesty spice mix over it and drenches it with a few generous squeezes of clementine juice with his coal-blackened, sooty hand. He then sticks a toothpick or two into the cubes of the steaming sweet potato, wraps the newspaper around them and hands the package to you. Throwing caution and all thoughts of hygiene to the wind, you dig into the unbelievably delicious Shakarkandi, mouth burning. What a high. 

For me, Shakarkandi is synonymous with freezing, foggy winters in Lahore when the sun doesn't shine for days and days: this simple little snack chases all the blues away.

One quiet morning, as I moved around my kitchen in silent nostalgia while I prepared vegetables to steam for the baby's meals that day, it hit me: It's so easy to make Shakarkandi at home. Why had I never done this before in all these years? There is no long list of ingredients. All you need is: sweet potatoes, clementines, chaat masala. The latter is not a fancy ingredient, it's a simple spice blend that you might easily find at your local South Asian store. If not, here's a recipe to make your own.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Heidi Swanson's Bran Muffins

I loved the ease of having the kids home for the holidays. The days blended into one another and three weeks flew by too fast because we were busy moving and settling into a new house. With so much to do, the lazy mornings I had envisioned and looked forward to just didn’t materialize most days. However,But it was so good to be able to wake up just a little later than my usual 5 a.m. and peacefully enjoy breakfast in the quiet hour I got to myself before the others started waking up. There were no early morning chastisements, hurried breakfasts, rush to catch the school bus. No trails of strewn clothes left behind or balled-up pyjamas found on top of beds. No realization a split second later (and the ensuing anxiety) that either child forgot a water bottle, a book-bag, library book, a hat, money for field trip/school photo/book order. Because they leave for school at 6:40 a.m. and are up and maddeningly chirpy at 6:00, the kids go to bed fairly early on weeknights. Usually they are already asleep before 7 p.m. which means we have to wait until the weekend to eat dinner together as a family. At least holidays change all of that. So accustomed we are to not seeing each other past 6:15 p.m., there is much giddiness and meal-times are loud, messy, exciting.  It’s sad when all of that comes to an end. But, to be honest, by the end of three weeks I was a little twitchy. So overwhelmed with all the things I still needed to sort through without the kids (finally) underfoot, yet excited to reclaim a few hours of relative under-stimulation each morning.

The night before the first day back in school, I stood in the kitchen with my copy of the beautiful Super Natural Every Day  by HeidiSwanson propped up on my messy kitchen counter, laid open to page 47, Bran Muffins. Working with what I had on hand I whisked eggs, yogurt, coconut oil and maple syrup together while I conversed with the man (husband) and a visiting friend, a sleepy baby balanced on my left hip. When I felt I needed the use of both hands the baby would be passed to the others – seemingly happy, her droopy eyes belying the frisky, jerky movement of her hands and limbs. Back and forth she went, observing every movement as I scooped the thick-ish batter into the muffin tin and, before I popped them in the oven, dotted a few with a teaspoon of strawberry jam, some with chopped dates and left the rest as they were. Not expecting these muffins to be very palatable (come on, bran = blah most of the time) I assumed they would need embellishments. How wrong. These muffins were moist, delicious, and hearty with just the right amount of sweetness and a faint crunch (the crunch from the crushed cereal in the batter lasted only up to a day but the muffins were very moist three days later). No embellishments needed. Perfect with a tiny smear of barely-salted butter (for me), and for breakfast-on-the-go for the kids. These muffins saved me this week.

A few days ago I had cheerfully uploaded this photo on instagram. The caption said, “Kids back in school. Enjoying the quiet this morning”. How presumptuous and audacious. Of course that was an invitation to jinx myself forever.

Just when I thought I was going to unpack our last few boxes in peace and then put up my feet and read a book, maybe: everyone got sick. Including me. Falling like dominoes, starting with my girl, ending with me. So, this week was all about sleep-deprivation and exhaustion. I feel a bit like a wrung-out mop. Or dish-rag. Whatever is worse. But at least these muffins kept me nourished while, according to my boy, we (he and I) were “living the life” today i.e. sitting up in bed convalescing reading and chatting.

If you’d like to make these muffins, here’s the recipe. I used things I had on hand so I substituted coconut oil for the butter, a blend of whole wheat and all-purpose flour for the whole wheat pastry flour, and yogurt for the buttermilk. I’ve made quite a few things out of this book over previous months (more blog posts to follow) and I find Heidi’s recipes very easily adaptable. The recipes themselves contain suggestions for substitutes and I’ve found that I can use seasonal fruits, a blend of flours and different alternatives for butter without my alterations compromising the end-result. I’m excited to try more recipes from this book over the next few weeks as part of my target-one-cookbook-a-month plan for this year.

Bran Muffins
Makes 12
(Mildly adapted from the original recipe) Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson, Page 47

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
½ cup coconut oil
¼ cup maple syrup
½ cup oat bran
1.5 cups plain, unsweetened bran cereal, crushed (I poured it into a zipper bag and crushed it with one hand while I carried the baby)
½ cup wholewheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
¼ cup natural cane sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp fine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400F. Generously butter a standard 12-cup muffin pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, coconut oil and maple syrup. Sprinkle the crushed cereal and the bran on top, stir, and allow the mixture to rest for five minutes.
Stir the dry ingredients together in another bowl and sprinkle them over the wet ingredients, stirring till just combined. Scoop the thick-ish batter into your muffin pan and bake 18-22 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes before turning the muffins out of the pan to cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake

"Someone I loved once gave me 
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand 

that this, too, was a gift" 
The Uses of Sorrow by Mary Oliver

I have a hard time saying goodbye. But I'm not sad that 2012 has reached its bittersweet end.

It was a challenging year, on the personal front, for both the husband and myself: a bad year for friendships, a year of some very tough trials and of facing harsh truths about certain loved ones . . . focusing on the positives I'd say I may have lost a few illusions but I gained a lot of perspective. It was a year of testing my limits and finding that I still do okay. That things may overwhelm me at times but I stand strong enough to see them through. I learned a lot this past year.

Life tends to be wonderful and infuriating at the same time. A lot of great things have happened too: it was a rewarding year as parents, a year of big (and good) changes, being blessed with new friendships and many, many wonderful moments . Through all the tumultuousness food has been constant and consistent in its ability to make me feel calm and grounded. Whether I'm standing in my kitchen chopping vegetables to add to a steaming pot of soup, coercing egg-whites into shiny whiteness to make the perfect meringue cookies, rolling out discs of dough that sizzle on a hot, oiled griddle, or breathing in the aromas from the tray of warm, freshly baked banana muffins that I've just placed on a cooling rack: the soothing repetition of these rituals I perform as I move around my kitchen is a healing balm.

Increasingly, baking and cooking are the only things I really, really love to do. I can't always get in the kitchen for baking marathons any more but I'm trying to carve out the time to do so whenever I can - and to end the long silences on this blog. I have been hanging out on Instagram recently and some of the baking I do makes its way into my newsfeed there. Two of my blogger friends from the BWD group and I decided we would pick a random cookbook each month and bake/cook as many things as we wanted from it throughout that month. Whoever decides to blog about the experience is welcome to do so, but there is no compulsion. There are no other rules and the only requirement is that we post photos on instagram using the hashtag #inspiredkitchen . This challenge provides the perfect opportunity for me to go through my vast and ever-increasing collection of cookbooks. For December we picked 'Baking With Julia' by Dorie Greenspan. But more on that later.

For now I want to wish you a year full of  inspiring, wonderful, happy times. And I want to leave you with this chocolatey, airy but fudgy cake from The Cake Bible. It's the perfect cake to ring in the new year. I found a recipe link for you here. Happy 2013!


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