What to cook when an extended family is having a bit of a get-together and there are enough vegetarians present to make the idea of a meatless meal seem the most appropriate option? This was the question on my mind last week when the get-together was in my kitchen and the extended family mine by marriage. My choice of menu further coloured by the continued conceit that it is summer in London (in spite of all physical evidence to the contrary) it seemed necessary to sprinkle a little romance over the occasion and imagine a hotter clime where rain might be indicative of welcome seasonal monsoon relief and perhaps even cause for celebration.
Lucky enough to have a father-in-law who is my kindred spirit in his subcontinental kitchen, although thus unfortunately geographically too distant to be present on the day, the centre-piece of my menu was an e-mailed family recipe for navratan pullao - a vegetable based spiced rice dish.
5 bunches spinach (£1) washed and prepared
Of course this necessitated another trip to Southall, my favourite place for sourcing Indian ingredients, my supplies of kala jeera (black cumin seed) needing replenishing and this being all the excuse I need to make a journey.
Shopping for food in a Southall supermarket is a little different from my local Waitrose experience. The customers here, male, female, young, old, know their produce and seem most happy when faced with piles of vegetables that are to be sorted through. Everybody here takes a little time to choose, has a view on quality, freshness and suitability of a particular ingredient for its intended purpose and will wait patiently one behind the other for a turn to pick through the produce, one piece at a time, undisturbed by any impatience on the part of fellow shoppers as they do so.
I duly waited my turn at the okra coalface while the shopper in front of me picked out her choice of bindi, one lady finger at a time. As she moved onward to the neighbouring karela and finding a bag of ‘chosen’ pieces left atop the pile, she enquired if these were mine. It pained her to know that somebody had taken time and effort to choose these specimens and that they were now dislocated one from the other. I admitted my ignorance of this particular vegetable and our bonding began. She detailed its health giving properties (good for the blood and for those inclined toward diabetes) and proceeded to give me several methods for preparing and cooking it. Always degorged (salted and allowed to release some of its bitterness that can then be rinsed away), sometimes peeled, sometimes chopped, sometimes secretly stuffed, fried or braised, her recipes varied from the almost ready-meal speedy (the ones that allow you to blend pre-ground spices instead of grinding your own masala) to the highly elaborate and time consuming. She remarked that meat is much easier to prepare and how upsetting it can be if her family refuse her vegetarian offerings (unthinkable really when faced with this much love in the preparation, but such is the bitterness of life and karela I guess). She wished me joy in the cooking of the karela that I was now taking care in choosing for myself, looking for none too large but firm and fresh looking specimens that I hoped would not surprise me in due course with fluffily over-ripe seeds, as she took her leave having found the 'few’ things that she needed to stop by this warehouse to buy.
karela, bitter gourd
An overfull shopping trolley later, laden with cauliflower, tindor, curry patta, spinach, coriander, fenugreek leaves, okra, baby aubergine, rice, bread, spices, chickpea flour, bombay onions, long thin beans, corn and so much more, the checkout lady decided that she could not let me pay my bill without double-checking that it was right - the amount looked too much and she needed to be sure there had been no error (I had expected it to be higher). Satisfied that all was well, shopping bagged for me and carefully placed back into my trolley by someone who cared to check that they were stacking it appropriately to avoid squashing or spoiling anything delicate, I was set to plan the rest of my menu.
sack of bombay onions
FATHER-IN-LAW’S NAVRATAN PULLAO
300g basmati rice,
3 tablespoons vegetable oil,
½ tsp black cumin seeds,
1 medium size onion, skinned and finely sliced,
4 green cardamom pods,
1 inch cinnamon stick,
2 Bay leaves,
8 whole black peppercorns,
225g (approx) mixed, prepared vegetables (eg cauliflower, beans, peas, corn, carrots, okra, peppers),
pinch chilli powder,
- clean the rice thoroughly, soak for 30 minutes in cold water then drain the water and let the rice stand for couple of minutes.
- heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan, add cumin seeds and fry for a few seconds then add the sliced onions and fry for 3 - 5 minutes until the onions are golden brown. Add the cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon stick, Bay leaves and whole peppercorns and continue frying for another few seconds. Add the prepared vegetables, the salt and chilli powder, stir fry for a minute or two then reduce the heat, cover and allow to stew for 5 minutes.
- Add the drained rice to the pan and mix all the vegetables gently; level the rice with a spatula
and add water to cover the rice by a couple of centimeters, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and let it cook undisturbed for 20 minutes or until the water is completely absorbed and the grains are separate. Gently fork the rice and vegetables into a serving dish and serve with raitha (or plain yogurt) and chutneys.
fried onions and whole spices
On the day: rice cooking, other vegetable dishes prepared, bread piled high, Geeta’s chutneys selected, family imminent, weather dubious but promising (we have yet to lose our optimism), I donned my ruby slippers, put some Mehdi Hassan ghazals on to play to honour his life and his passing from it, and hoped for the best from the food and the weather to make us feel a little summery; maybe it was the slippers, but the weather turned out just fine as did the party, and the rice dish? - a definite keeper.
“There’s no place like home” ~ Dorothy, Kansas