30-Jun-2011

Sausage and Fresh basil Pizza

My brush with cooking has at worst been a disaster and at best, satisfactory. This is largely on account of inexperience and finding a million other things more interesting to do than being tied to the kitchen.

Then, I got incentivized. Two things happened. First was a resolution to go closer to my cultural roots when it came to eating. Thus began Saturday morning breakfasts of idlis and dosas and adais and now, pesarattu. Since I just had to soak all the ingredients and the bai did the necessary grinding, chopping up onions etc, this was a breeze. After the first few times, we have even learnt how to make a dosa in less than 5 minutes. (The good cooks can refrain from laughing at this point…)

Second was sheer boredom from eating plain old dal and sabzi that the bai churns out on a daily basis. A mid-week non-roti routine is now beginning to take shape. Most times the bai makes pav bhaji or paratha or some such non-roti food. Once in a while, I have wielded the spoon myself (largely caused by useless programming on Star World on weeknights. Bring back How I met your Mother to the 8 p.m. slot, I say)

This week, finally one of those experiments met with great success and after the stories of my non-cooking, this deserves some recording.

It all began with seeing an episode of Castle which had the lead character eat a sausage and fresh basil pizza that looked yummy enough to be grabbed out of the TV screen. There was some basil and cheddar cheese leftover in the fridge after the previous week’s experiment with pasta (which we will avoid discussing). I had got whole wheat pizza bases and now we had found the exact thing we wanted to eat. D promptly picked up the other ingredients in between rushing around to office and other places. I trawled online, did not find the exact recipe I wanted and decided to strike out on my own with a combination of recipes (Feeling exactly like how Columbus must have felt back then, navigating strange territory with primitive tools)

Ingredients

For the pizza (serves 2)

2 whole wheat pizza bases (ours were a bit larger than quarter plates)
Tomato sauce (recipe follows)
Sausages (we picked up smoked pork sausages that were pre-cooked) – to the amount of topping you would like. ½ packet should be more than enough
Fresh basil leaves – ¼ cup
Cheese – 1 cup (we used Cheddar but I presume Mozarella is standard)
2 tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the tomato sauce

½ kg tomatoes
1 onion – chopped
5 garlic – chopped
1 tsp chilli power
1 tsp oregano
2 tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt to taste


Preparation

Tomato Sauce –

Boil the tomatoes in water for 10 minutes.
Remove from stove, cool and take off skin, deseed and grind coarsely
Fry chopped onion in olive oil till light brown
Add chopped garlic and fry for a half a minute more
Add chilli power, oregano and salt
Finally add the tomatoes

Now comes the part I picked up from enthusiastic cook HaAThi. I covered the frying pan and let the sauce simmer till the water had evaporated. This took about 20 – 25 minutes.

It is useful to let all the water boil away since a watery sauce makes the pizza base soggy.

Pizza –

Step 1 – Remove sausages from casing and cut the sausages into circular pieces. Shallow fry in some olive oil till it gets brown.

If you have got pre-cooked sausages, then you can skip the shallow-frying

Step 2 –

Chop the basil leaves into long shreds. I found an easy way to do this online but unfortunately lost the link. Anyhow – you arrange the basil leaves one on top of another and then roll up from stem part to tip. You have something that looks like a cigar now. Chop breadth wise. When the basil unfurls, it is automatically in long pieces

Step 3 -

Coat the pizza bases with 1 tsp olive oil each.
Divide the tomato sauce into two portions and apply to each pizza base on the oiled side
Strew half a cup of cheese over the sauce (I actually grated directly onto the base instead of grating separately into a cup and then transferring. Much quicker this way).
Arrange the sausages on top of the pizza.
Sprinkle the basil leaves
Add the rest of the cheese on top

Step 4 –

I have a microwave cum oven. So just followed the directions to use it as per the oven’s guide book. Which was 600 MW + 220 degrees.

If you have a normal oven, apparently the way to do it is to pre-heat to 400 degrees and then put the pizza in and bake for 7 – 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

In my case, I kept the first pizza for 7 minutes and it was a bit overcooked.

So I kept the second one for 5 minutes, with the intention of increasing the time if needed but it turned out just fine and yummy.

Step 5 –

Do the victory dance. Proclaim that perhaps the time has come to sign up for Masterchef. Disregard all previous evidence (here, here, here and here) and say that you are an intelligent cook who can synthesize various recipes and tips and come up with the perfect pizza. But secretly thank god for smoked sausages since it tastes good on practically anything.

27-Jun-2011

Hiking up Daulatabad Fort




My first visit to Ajanta-Ellora was a rushed day trip, fitted in between some demanding schedules to maximize time. A bunch of us arrived by overnight train into Aurangabad and after dragging our half-asleep selves into a car, managed to visit both Ajanta and Ellora in the course of a day. However, there was not enough time to ‘peep into’ Daulatabad Fort. I am glad I did not consign Daulatabad to just a quick dekko.

This time around, with D in tow, we had a proper weekend to explore the region and Daulatabad Fort got its own special place in the itinerary.

We had been warned that the Fort involved some climbing and so we smartly scheduled our visit for the morning. The weather was perfect – rainy weather, without the rains and the humidity. This helped us a lot during the day because despite being tired, we never felt hot, sweaty and bothered.

The Fort has a fairly longish history, with various rulers having used it over the years and adding their own special contribution. The structure as it is now began evolving with the Yadavas in 1180s, was hijacked by Allaudin Khilji, and under Tughlaq was capital city for a brief while in 1320s.

The best way to discover the fort seemed to be to ramble around and explore the small buildings, tanks, passageways et al and slowly meander to the top. We picked up one of the cheap ‘guide’ books that gave a map of the area and named all the structures and sometimes even gave a brief history/description. This turned out to be a useful buy since we could move at our own pace without a guide and still not be lost.

The entrance was quite impressive with a whole range of cannons. From there, we could see a couple of water storage tanks that looked absolutely beautiful. The surrounding greenery was a strange combination of manicured lawns and the general forest. Near one of the tanks, we could hear really loud peacock calls in the wild and managed to spot one jumping onto a tree (I did not realize peacocks could do this).

From the tanks, it was onto the Bharat Mata pavilion. The open courtyard was flanked by beautiful, broken pillars with intricate work and you could hear your voice echo all around the courtyard. In one end was a sincere but amateurish statue of Bharat Mata, erected by the Nizams of Hyderabad (who last owned this place) when Hyderabad became a part of independent India.

The small, well-maintained lawns made an appearance again and would have been a lovely spot for a picnic, but for the few monkeys hanging around.

Next stop was at Chand Minar, built in the Iranian style and looking quite unostentatious.

From here, the actual climbing bit slowly began. Through a series of easy steps, we passed a couple of grand doorways and landed up at ‘Chini Mahal’. The remanants of the China Clay tiles from which this place got its name could still be seen. It was supposedly a jail for royal prisoners, but did not look particularly fancy to me. Slightly further up, mounted on its own special platform was a cannon with a ram head, that could swirl and target for miles around.

At this stage, we reached the moat. The moat was one of the Fort’s many defence mechanisms and had two bridges – a metal one created in the early 1950s to replace a crocodile-leather wrapable bridge and another stone bridge at a lower level that could be immersed by raising the water level when enemies came. Needless to say the moat was once filled with blood thirsty crocodiles but now was a slimy green with an island of mineral water bottles.

Crossing over to the other side and through some passages, the next defence mechanism came into view. A tricky and pitch-dark 50-mtr passage that could lead unknowing travelers to immediate death if they took the wrong turn. Luckily an alternate route had been built in the bright sunlight and we could avoid the ancient traps.

Up and up we went, climbing various steps, entering darks rooms to climb even more steps..this could have been like being in Harry Potter but for the hordes of tourists scurrying their way busily past the sights and sounds with the single goal of reaching the top and ticking the Fort off their ‘to-do’ list for the day.

We did not scurry so much. Unfortunately it was as much on account to pause to take in the greenery and birdcalls and the structures, as it was to catch our poor urban-bred breath. Older people, women in high heels, men carrying babies in their arms, all of them walked past us while we pretended to enjoy the view, huffing and puffing.

Eventually we reached the topmost layer of the fort. The only standing structure here was Baradari, a roomy 12-arched remarkably well-preserved structure built by Shahjehan. The wind was quite nice and brisk and we pressed on. Though this was the top and we could see our car as a tiny white dot somewhere on the ground, we were still not at the very top. After the Baradari, we went past an old cave where some holymen were said to have meditated, past an old cannon and to the pinnacle – where the Indian flag is hoisted on Independence Day.

What was meant to be a 45 minute walk had turned into a 2 hour climb. It is probably one of the best short-hiking experiences I have had. The fort was engaging, the views around pleasing and the walk, tiring in a pleasant manner.

Definitely worth a visit.

17-Jun-2011

IPL watching by a cricket non-fan

If I remember it right, I was the one who suggested watching IPL live. This is pretty ironic considering I know amazingly little about the game. However, I had heard from all and sundry that IPL belongs to the (to paraphrase Tata Steel’s ads from yore) ‘We also play cricket’ school of thought. Besides I had emerged fresh and unscathed from watching an exciting India World Cup final. D and the Ma-in-law, both cricket fans, the latter more so than the former, were only happy to agree to the plan.

When we landed outside Wankhede stadium, we were all waving our hands breezily. The ticket said ‘no bags, no camera, no food, no drinks, just come in your clothes and all the money in your bank’.

After reading between the lines, I concluded that binoculars were not prohibited. I was not questioned by anyone except for the lady at our twenty seventh security check before entry. I pointed to the rules and then pointed out that her predecessors did not find anything amis. I was trying to look like the serious cricket fan who did not want to miss the intricacies of each ball. Though secretly, I was hoping to watch in close-up, Nita Ambani jumping again into Harbhajan Singh’s arms or such other exciting events.

Our first stop was for food. After dropping some of the inheritance we would pass onto potential heirs here, we moved on to spend the rest at the memorabilia stall. I got a flashing headband of Mumbai Indians, the home team. D got a loud noise-making device that ensured that I stayed out of ear range during the match. Ma-in-law desisted. Later on, we realized why.

Mumbai Indians were playing the Deccan Charges. We were really early – 6.30 p.m. for an 8 p.m.match. The binocs were put to immediate use ogling at Ishant Sharma.

By the time 8 p.m. came, the seats were filled, the dinkchak dance music was loud, the cheerleaders had begun their routine and the stadium was throbbing with excitement. I was waving the free Mumbai Indians flag like mad. If only to create some breeze in the stifling heat of the stadium. Despite being located so close to Marine Drive, there was not a single suspicion of a breeze and I was convinced that I would slowly bake in my seat.

The game began and the first over was bowled. At this point, I paused sufficiently long from all the food I was stuffing into my face, to express my surprise about the batsmen changing sides! Before I could launch into a theory of how IPL was corrupting cricket to introduce some downtime for ads and cheerleaders to dance, D and Ma-in-law both hit their hands to their heads. Oops, apparently that is a regular cricket rule. Clearly, my ignorance ran deeper than I thought.

Which also explained, why after the 5th over, once I had taken a close look at Nita Ambani, memorized all the dance routines of the cheer leaders and become too sick to eat more food, I started to feel bored.

Time paused in front of my eyes. Each ball looked like an eternity. I began to think of bad jokes like ‘why call it an over if it is never going to get over!’ (pause for proud, self-congratulatory chuckle). I started to make mental lists of what I wanted to with my life, where I would like to go on holiday, what other furniture we needed in the house and so on. In between, I took in Malinga coming over to our part of the world to field, and the audience going wild with their calls of ‘Malinga Malinga’. The man could have waved, but no. Just a wee shrug of the shoulders (a photo of which I took in my mobile approx ten times to get as much out of this episode as possible).

I had almost decided that I would go home when the interval came. I jumped out of my seat and ran to the food stalls. Immediately there was fresh air, a cool breeze and the welcoming sight of food. (It was incredible, the amount of food I was able to eat). Once fed, I figured the match was anyway half over and it couldn’t last much longer.

So back to the second half. Deccan Chargers playing surprising well. Or rather Mumbai Indians batting like a bunch of school kids just learning to bat. Wickets began to collapse left, right and centre. This lead to a rather morose crowd. What with the music having been switched off to comply with Mumbai rules, the match became rather lackluster. The only person in the whole auditorium who looked rather pleased with the state of affairs was Ma-in-law. Turns out she is a closet Deccan Chargers fan.

It was quite evident that the Mumbai Indians were going to lose and they could have very well done the decent thing and gotten all out in 15 overs. But oh no, they wouldn’t. We had to wait for the entire twenty overs to reach the ending that had looked inevitable from the 2nd wicket. By this time it was already well past 11. I suspect though, not everyone shared my view. I could see most people (including D) perked up a bit when there was a shower of runs in the last few overs.

The crowds began to pour out on Marine Drive the minute the match got over. The competition to find a cab began.

I had carefully saved up my expensive memorabilia and now, after more than a month, can safely conclude that it has gone into the clutter that is threatening to overrun our house and make us consider moving to a bigger place.

On the whole, it was a rather good experience. Earlier, when people used to discuss cricket, I used to merely nod along. Now, I have made it a point to drop ‘so when we were watching IPL the other day…’.

Not bad at all.

16-Jun-2011

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie



Rating - Read

Whenever I go home and spend a couple of days with the parents, I automatically regress by roughly twenty years. I act immature, eat lots of food, and spend the whole day reading and sleeping. This also means that I usually promptly put down the book I am reading and switch to ‘easy to read’ stuff and there is no better ‘easy to read’ stuff than Agatha Christie. The prolific author represented a growing up milestone where you shifted from books about kids solving mysteries to books about adults solving mysteries.

While I have graduated to darker and more insightful mystery novels, Christie never fails to thrill. This time at home, I read a whole bunch of short stories, some of them featuring the famous ‘Mr Harley Quinn’ (a character that still makes me feel uneasy with its ethereal presence). Back in Bombay, I googled for her most famous novel and a lot of sites threw up the above name. Surprisingly, in all these years, I had never read the book.

The novel is vintage Christie and vintage Poirot. The plot revolves around a rich man, Roger Ackroyd, being murdered in his own house. Just before he is murdered, he finds out that the wealthy widow he had been pursuing has committed suicide. He also finds out that the widow has killed herself out of remorse from poisoning her husband and having to live with the consequence. The house is full of relatives, friends, domestic servants and so on. Poirot, who has retired in this village, steps in to assist the local police force to solve the mystery.

Christie works on her usual device, planting clues in a manner designed to mislead you. She does this masterfully till the murderer is finally revealed.

I will not write much more about the story itself since that would risk revealing more than necessary.

However, I must say that I noticed something in the book that I had not noticed in my naïve youth. When Poirot takes on the case, he is careful to suggest to the Inspector-in-charge that the latter shall get all the glory that will come from solving the case. I have always remembered Poirot as rather proud of his abilities. I never quite realized that even he had to deal with the politics of his circumstances. Ah, I am older and wiser and read between the lines.

The other interesting point was how much Poirot sounds like a Belgian created by a non-Belgian. Having interacted closely with the French, I have started noticing their penchant for saying things in a French way. This usually includes awkward grammar and the French pronunciation of an English word (eg ‘Idee’ for ‘idea’). Poirot, (though admittedly not French) has perfect sentence construction and the only French he uses come in full sentences. Not that it takes away the charm of his character but again, I am older and wiser I guess.

On the book itself, I am not sure if this is her best book since over the years, at different ages I have been impressed by different books of her. It is definitely one good read and a perfect book for a rainy day when you have decided to stay indoors.

13-Jun-2011

Talk time


If anyone had the good fortune of watching last night’s premier episode of ‘India’s Most Desirable’, then they must have gone to bed in good spirits after rolling on the floor laughing.

One look at host, Simi Garewal’s face and you knew that a lot of entertainment value would come simply from that. Simi was talking (and sometimes even laughing) throughout the episode but you never saw her actually move any muscle on her face to achieve this! How incredibly botox-ed could she have been to look like a cyborg on a beta-test.

This episode featured Ranbir Kapoor (“RK”), among the latest brood of actors to climb the Bollywood star chart. The gossip goes that this episode was a tit-for-tat to erstwhile girlfriend, actress Deepika. Deepika had suggested on an earlier talkshow that RK was a playboy of sorts. Apparently the Kapoor family machinery decided that they had to restore the ‘achha ladka hai’ image of RK.

And how!

The talk show turned out to be a prepatory session for something like ‘Rakhi Sawant ki Shaadi/Swayamvar’

First was the section on RK’s family. In a nutshell – a dad trying hard to play the image of ‘jolly go lucky’ father and a mom to beat all Indian moms with the ‘my son is the best' obsession. The end result was a long rethink about Ekta Kapoor's portrayls of mother-in-laws as possessive and devious. Perhaps not as unrealistic as one would imagine.


Onto the section on RK’s hobbies – a little ditty played on the guitar from Simi’s hits. Simi cooing delightedly (and eerily without actually moving her mouth).

Next onto the astrology section (Come on, we are traditional, we are Indian). Imagine Mallika Shehrawat in ‘Hiss’ as the snake lady. Now imagine if she had just finished consuming a whole deer and had saved it up for digestion later. (Pythons are known to do this).This is how the astrology lady looked. Python-Astrology lady gushed about RK meeting the love of his life soon and getting married in a couple of years.


Finally onto RK’s descriptions of what he would want in a girl and what kind of a boyfriend he would be.

At this point, I was sitting with my mouth wide-open. When I am about to be given insights of an upcoming actor, especially one who is reasonably talented and has a movie background, I fully expect to hear something about what he thought of his profession and his art. Instead I was watching a matrimonial ad of the type that would never make me click 'yes' on shaadi.com


No normal 28 year old should allow his mom and dad to spend so much time talking about what a great boy he is and what a brilliant husband he will make. Imagine an upcoming star doing this on live TV. One needs to be seriously deranged or seriously lacking good advice to do this.


I was past laughter and onto serious gag zone. So regretfully, I turned off the TV despite an innate curiosity to see what came next. Oh well, there is always next Sunday.


09-Jun-2011

American Gods by Neil Gaiman



Rating - Read if you have the time


Neil Gaiman was introduced to me through his collaborative book with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. Another avid reader friend had recommended Good Omens and I promptly bought it.


Bit of history – I used to be in total thrall of Terry Pratchett for a while. Unfortunately after around ten books, I stopped enjoying him. I suspect I never actually got over him which explains why I own practically every book of his from the Discworld Series (I don’t have such a representation of any other author in my book shelf). So when I read Good Omens, I sort of liked it while I could not quite make up mind about it and figured that maybe Neil Gaiman was responsible for some of the more non-Pratchetty insights. A chance encounter with Amercian Gods in an airport bookshop and I had coughed up the necessary money.


The book’s premise is fairly simple. What do Gods who have slowly died from human memory do to stay in existence? What if they were competing with other new Gods? What if there was a war among the old and new Gods.


The setting is modern America and the old Gods are the ones who had come over with each wave of immigrants. The range varies from Horus to our very own Indian Ganesha. This being America, the new Gods are media, television and something along those lines. A newly released convict, Shadow is recruited for the oncoming war by old God Odin, masquerading as a human named Wednesday. Wednesday and Shadow go around lobbying other dying Gods to start and join the war. Shadow, meanwhile is haunted by his dead wife Laura. Through the course of the book, Shadow wanders through various towns in America, meets several old Gods, walks the ‘backstage’ space of the world and has a series of adventures before finally realizing the truth about the war.


The book’s theme is not particularly unique. Gaiman’s writing partner Pratchett did it much better in Small Gods and I am sure there are enough other books on this topic. Gaiman uses the theme to give us a bit of everything – history of the old gods, discourses on the state of affairs in America, some sci-fi type scenes, a lot of hard hitting murder and horror. All of them intelligent but none of them particularly thought-provoking. Add to it, you keep asking questions like ‘Did the Egyptians actually travel to the U.S. when Horus was still in fashion’, ‘Is Ganesha really a dying God in America’ (I would not think so given that most NRIs seem to be more religious than locals). ‘Why doesn’t Jesus figure in the book? Isn’t he a current God?’, ‘Can a physical war between old and new Gods actually kill off any of them considering the book’s basic premise is that the Gods exist because of their place in people’s lives’.


Overall it is an Ok read. I liked the beginning and the end and the book influenced me enough to have nightmares during its darkest bits. The book began to drag in the middle. Much patience was needed before I could get to the end. Mostly I stuck at it because I quite liked the taciturn central character, Shadow and wanted to see how he ended up.


I am not sure if I am going to read another Neil Gaiman in a hurry unless someone tells me American Gods was not among his better books and I really ought to try a different one.