Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obituary: Sabina Sehgal Saikia

Sabina Sehgal Saikia was a food writer who had been with the Times of India group for over 17 years who at the time of her untimely demise had risen to Consulting Editor at the publication. She died in the Terror attacks in Mumbai where she was staying on the 6th floor. She was in Mumbai for the wedding of Bachi Karkaria's son next week.

Sabina could make or break a Delhi restaurant based on her reviews. She initially wrote an extremely popular column called "Main Course" for the Saturday Times, which later moved to the Delhi Times.

I was first introduced to her, when I picked up the Times of India Restaurant Guide for Delhi, 8 years ago. My next 2 years in Delhi were made tolerable by this handy book. I tried out restaurants based on her recommendations and agreed with her judgment over 80% of the time. She was honest and direct.

The Times of India Restaurant Guides to Hyderabad and Bombay could never match up to the standard that Sabina had set. She had spoiled me against other guides with her perfection and accuracy.

I subscribed to the Times of India in Delhi, just to read her column, although the Hindustan Times gave much better news coverage in Delhi.

An excellent cook herself, she soon visited me in my living room on NDTV cooks demonstrating an especially fiery looking Green Chilli Pickle.

I never met her face-to-face, but I felt like I knew a part of her. The part of her that loved good food and in Saif Ali Khan's words "acha khaana khane ke liye, hum kahin pe bhi chalenge" (to eat good food, we will travel anywhere) and in a wierd way, I identified with this part of her.

Sabina will be sorely missed in the food writers world. Our sympathies go out to her husband Shantanu and her two young children who will feel her absence much more than her millions of devoted readers.

Sabina you brought joy into the lives of food lovers: May your Soul, Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jamón ibérico - The King of Hams!

I received this in the mail, a couple of days ago:

From swine raised like royalty, cured ham called jamon iberico is finally here.

This party has been two years in the making. At the home of Frank Cutitta, friends are beginning to gather. Cutitta, a media executive, is in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on pasta alla carbonara and veal saltimbocca. Outside on a stone patio overlooking a pond, people mill around the guest of honor.

It weighs 13 pounds, glistens with fat, and is capped by a dramatic black hoof.

It's a ham, but not just any ham. This is jamon iberico de bellota, the be-all-and-end-all, Rolls Royce, of ultra hams: one that positively demands a party. It comes from Spain, and it is among the first whole bellota hams to legally reach this country. Until now, to get a taste of this porcine holy grail, American foodies had to hop a plane.

The ham has arrived in the United States because the Spanish company Embutidos Fermin, located in the medieval village of La Alberca, spent much of the last decade working to meet USDA specifications. The company built a new slaughterhouse and formed a partnership with chef Jose Andres, host of the PBS series "Made in Spain," and Portland, Maine, importers the Rogers Collection. In 2008, they got the green light. The following year jamon iberico began to trickle into the country, first in the form of sausages, then paletas, or shoulders. But the actual hams, which take several years to cure, didn't start shipping to customers till recently.

The ham has arrived in Wayland because Cutitta's friend Victor Grillo, the man behind such ads as the famous Ginsu knife infomercial, heard about it long ago and decided to get his hands on one.

He found out he couldn't. "It was forbidden fruit," he says. "You want what you can't have." When he discovered a waiting list for jamon iberico (pronounced: ham-ON ee-BEAR-ee-ko) started by La Tienda, a website specializing in Spanish products, he put down his name and a
$199 deposit.

He was among about 400 people to do so, according to La Tienda owner Don Harris. That was two years ago. Some people have been on the waiting list for as long as six years. Very few of them are in the restaurant business. These are individuals, caught up in pure porky obsession.

"They are ham fanatics," Harris says. "One guy was postponing his wedding till he got one. He has a motorcycle club called the Patas Negras," or "black hooves," another name for the Iberian pigs from which the ham is made. "We had a customer who went and visited his ham in the mountain village where it was being cured."

Jamon iberico's cult following stems in part from its mystique: nearly nattainable, dearly expensive. It retails for $96 a pound and up.

Its provenance adds to that; the ham comes from pigs that are as coddled as the cattle that become Kobe beef. The pigs roam free, feasting on acorns ("bellotas" in Spanish). "They live in pig paradise," says Harris. "They grow up as a gang together for two years, then when it's time for them to meet their maker, they play them Mozart. After Mozart, they go to bed for the night. I don't know if they're tucked in. The next morning they get hot showers, then some mysterious carbon dioxide enters their atmosphere and they go off to piggy heaven." This is referred to not as slaughtering the pigs, but as sacrificing them. The hams then cure for up to four years in clean mountain air.

The piggy spa treatment takes place for a practical reason. "They want them very mellow," Harris says. "If they're scared, they produce epinephrine. If they're not stressed, the meat is fine. I'm not saying the ham people are pig lovers. They're meat lovers."

The main reason bellota ham is so coveted, of course, is its flavor.
"It's very meaty, rich, marbled with fat," writes Andres in an e-mail from Spain. "Jamon iberico is the finest ham in the world. It is a ham that will ruin you for other hams." He recommends serving it alone, or topped with caviar and rolled up like a cigar.

The meat is dark red, almost the shade of corned beef. It tastes like prosciutto in Technicolor, nuanced and blossoming in the mouth, with a lingering touch of iron. The fat has faintly fruity undertones; it dissolves on your tongue. Harris says the curing process converts much of the fat of acorn-fed hams into healthy monounsaturated fat, like olive oil that happens to taste like pork. According to the nutrition label on Fermin's website, a 1 ounce serving has 84.5 calories, 51.3 from fat; about a third of that is saturated. So it's not exactly health food, but it does taste extraordinary.

"The operative word for the bellota is 'meaty,' " says Harry Saltzman, the La Tienda customer who went to visit his ham in La Alberca. "Even the fat, which of course my wife assiduously cuts off and I love and I eat when she's not looking. I've been told the acorns give the ham and the fat this rich flavor. It's spectacular. Nobody believes it's as good as I say."

Back at the Cutitta home, the spread is on the table. Cutitta, who is famous among friends for his cooking, has created a feast based around Grillo's ham. There are slices of jamon iberico de bellota, unadorned; figs topped with the ham, manchego, and Italian honey; skewers of shrimp with ham; mushrooms with ham; the carbonara and the veal ("make sure you say it's from Waverly Market," Cutitta says).

"Isn't it great when food brings people together?" Grillo says. Then he takes his first bite of carbonara, topped with more slivers of jamon and Spanish cheese. "I'm gonna fall over," he says, practically swooning.
"Oh my God, this is awesome. This is better than sex."

And with that, it's time for a toast. "Here's to the pig!" Grillo says, raising a glass of Rioja. And together the friends salute the guest of honor.

"Here's to the pig!"

SOURCE: Devra First Globe Newspaper Company.

Wikipedia also has an entry on this ham that seems to support this article.

Interesting, isn't it?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Recipe : Nepali Style Chicken Biryani

This is another recipe from my friend who gave me the recipe for the Nepali Potato Kebabs

Its one of the easier Biryani recipes that I have come across and is pretty quick to prepare and cook as we will be using small pieces of boneless chicken and there is no masala to be ground.

2 cups basmati/biryani/long grained rice
1.5 cups boneless chunks of chicken (preferably breast meat)
3 tbsp ghee (You can use a little less if you prefer but don't substitute with oil, it will affect the flavor) / semna/clarified butter
1 cardamom pod
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion chopped
salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric/haldi
2 cloves garlic chopped
1 tsp ginger paste or freshly chopped ginger
1 tsp garam masala
2 cups water

Wash rice, soak in water for 10-20 minutes (while preparing the rest of the ingredients)
On medium flame, Heat the ghee, fry the cardamom, cloves and bay leaves until light brown.
Add chopped onion and cook until golden brown.
Add chicken, increase the heat and fry until the chicken is golden brown.
Add salt, turmeric, garlic, ginger and garam masala.
Cook for 15 minutes or till chicken is almost done.
Drain the water from the rice and add it to the chicken.
Fry until the rice is slightly browned.
Add the 2 cups water.

Tip:Always add hot water rather than water at room temperature to prevent the cold water from abruptly stopping the cooking process and to give your rice the right consistency in the end result.

Cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
Serve hot with Raita or pickles.

This preparation doesn't have any chillies added to it, if you would like to spice it up a bit, add a few chopped chillies when adding the turmeric powder.
This recipe can also be converted into a Vegetarian Biryani by substituting potatoes for the chicken.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Recipe : Warm (Mashed) Potato & Ham Salad

Potato and Ham salad is a dish I first tasted many years ago in a German restaurant.

The combination is interesting and the carbs in the potatoes make it quite a comfort dish.

This dish can be served as a salad (if you chop the potatoes rather than mash them, as a side dish or even as a base to assemble something fancy on top of. I can even eat it as a one dish meal. This is really fast to rustle up, especially if you keep a few cooked potatoes in your refrigerator as standby. Once the potatoes are cooked, the dish is ready in under 7 minutes.

You can also combine flavours to complement your main dish or the dish you build on top of this salad.

The following recipe can serve as a side dish for 2-3 people.

Cook 3 medium size potatoes till soft.
Mash potatoes with pepper, salt (use very little salt as your ham will have salt content too) and a bit of milk (you can add cream instead of milk if you aren't calorie conscious)
Cut 2 slabs of ham (tinned variety) and lightly fry on each side. Cut the slabs into reasonably sized cubes.
Fold the ham into the till warm mashed potatoes.
The dish is ready to serve.
If the mashed potatoes turn cold before you can serve it, feel free to zap it in a microwave.
Garnish with a bit of parsley.

There are tons of innovations that you can introduce in this dish during the stage when you are mashing the potatoes. These include
1. chopped herbs of your choice
2. chopped garlic lightly toasted in butter
3. spice powders
4. your favorite dipping sauce or flavored sauce (decrease the milk/cream so that you do not add too much liquid overall)

I wanted a bit of a bite the last time I made this, so I just added a bit of Nandos extra hot peri peri sauce.

If you had a bad experience at a Nando's restaurant don't be cynical. The sauces they sell are really good.


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