Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Collard Greens Wadi- a Savory Roll

I go through phases with my TV watching. For a number of years, food shows were the staple (hah) of my TV time and I hungrily watched everything from the gentle Saturday PBS line-up with the likes of Julia Child to the cupcake brawls on Food Network. Then we cut cable and I moved on to other genres, other shows.

In the last fortnight, foodie TV came back into my life in a delicious way with a show I found on Netflix streaming- Series 5 of The Great British Bake Off. The premise of the show is pretty standard- they find a dozen talented amateur bakers from around England, host a bake-off every weekend and eliminate one contestant at a time, and then crown a winner by the end of the season.

The competition is held in a tent on the picturesque grounds of a country manor. The demeanor of the contestants was utterly refreshing. They were good-humored, gracious and self-deprecating. The youngest baker in this series was only 17 years old. She is a high school student who lives with her parents. Her talent was mind-boggling. Then there were bakers in their 60s. I guess you're never too young and never too old to participate in life's big and little adventures. My favorite contestant was a guy from suburban London- a builder by profession who has a delicate touch with pastry. It is great when people are liberated from gender roles and allowed to pursue whatever the heck interests them.

The bakes were gorgeous and impressive, needing true talent and skill- the bakers had to make things like filo pastry from scratch. Each episode has an theme (say, cakes, or breads) and three parts: a signature bake (something that is a specialty of the baker), a technical (where bakers were given a rather vague recipe for a obscure baked good and had to bake it on the spot) and showstopper (making spectacular and elaborate bakes). This wiki page has an amazingly detailed write up of this series. While I myself don't much care for either baking or eating elaborate baked goodies, it is all very fun to watch.

The first challenge of the first episode involved making Swiss rolls. Watching those spongy cakes being rolled up with all sorts of interesting fillings made me want to run into the kitchen and bake a Swiss roll right away. Real life intervened and while I did end up making a roll this weekend, it was not quite the sweet and creamy type that I saw on the show. It was savory and there was no baking involved. This was a variation on the Maharashtrian snack/side dish called alu wadi or pathrode, in Gujarati these are called patra.

A thick paste of besan (chickpea flour) and spices is spread thinly on giant colocasia leaves and they are rolled up tightly, and then steamed. The cooked rolls are sliced to reveal pretty spirals, and then pan fried to golden crispy perfection.

I love this dish, so why have I never made it? Partly because it sounds like an elaborate and time-consuming process, and partly because colocasia leaves are not available where I live. But there is good news on both counts. Collard greens, widely available in supermarkets around here, are a wonderful substitute for colocasia leaves with their wide and sturdy leaves. In fact, I found a good recipe for collard greens wadi and followed it very closely.

Making the collard greens wadi was very straight-forward. The bunch of collard greens from the grocery store was massive- a bundle of about 25 leaves for three bucks.

1. Prep the leaves: Fold each collard leaf in half along the middle, then slice off the thick middle vein. You're left with leaves with a narrow wedge in the middle cut off.

2. Rinse the leaves well in water and pat dry.

3. Make the paste: Mix besan, rice flour, spices (turmeric, red chili powder, coriander cumin powder), flavorings (salt, jaggery, tamarind paste), and seeds (sesame seeds, poppy seeds). Add just enough water to make a thick paste. Next time I will add some oil to the paste.

4. Make the rolls: Lay down one leaf, spread some of the paste on it. Lay another leaf on it, alternating the direction, spread more paste. I built layers of about 5 leaves. Then roll the whole thing like a burrito- folding in the sides, then rolling tightly. I made 2 rolls. The rolling can be very imperfect- the whole process is quite forgiving and once steamed, the rolls look fine.

5. Next, steam the rolls for 15 minutes.

6. Cool the steamed rolls, cut into slices (a serrated knife works well) and pan fry in oil until golden brown.

We served the collard greens wadi as a side with bisibele bhaat for a weekend brunch. I still have half the leaves from the bunch left over and I'm thinking I might make, steam and slice some more rolls and stash them in the freezer, to the thawed and pan-fried over the next month or two.

If I manage to find some time, and a baking sheet of the right size, I might end up making a Swiss roll for Halloween- I have my eye on this pumpkin cream cheese roll.

Do you watch much food-themed TV? Have you seen The Great British Bake Off? I'd love to watch the other seasons of this show.

What have you been cooking and baking? 

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Birthday Brunch

On Christmas day 2014, Lila got a much-anticipated gift from a dear family friend, her American grandma- a DVD of the Disney movie Frozen. She watched it twice that day and has watched it almost every weekend since then. I will let you do the math. Yes, this little girl joined a substantial portion of the younger population of North America by being totally caught up with Frozen fever.

As a consequence, for eight months straight, Lila has begged us for an Elsa cake for her birthday. So when she turned four last month, at least this one aspect of the celebration was already decided on.

Lila's birthday party was a celebration at home, with 8 or so of her close friends in attendance (a few with their older and younger siblings in tow), along with their parents- so the guest list quickly grew to about 25 people. We decided on a 10 AM Saturday morning brunch birthday party, for several scheduling reasons. Around here, morning parties are not the norm but they are not unheard of either.

Incidentally, the time of the party was very appropriate because the birthday girl has been a morning person from day one. She was born in the wee hours of the morning and has committed herself to waking at the crack of dawn ever since- weekends, holidays, Mondays, you name it. We actually had to buy an alarm clock to make her stay in bed- it glows green at 5 AM and she knows that until the clock turns green, it is still night and she should try to sleep.

Anyway, back to the birthday cake. While I love baking, I am no good at decorating cakes. A friend of a friend opened a bakery in town only a couple of months ago, and I decided to outsource the cake to her expert hands. Lila specifically wanted "Elsa in blue standing on chocolate" so that's what she got: a three-layered vanilla sponge with strawberry filling and chocolate frosting, with blue candy ice crystals and Frozen figurines from Target.

The brunch buffet had three hot dishes. The first: soft fluffy idlis with cilantro coconut chutney.

I made idlis the weekend before the party and stored them neatly in the freezer in airtight boxes. It was a good idea because I wouldn't have had the time to do the grinding and steaming on the day before and day of the party. I thawed them overnight in the fridge and reheated them in the microwave just before serving- they were good as new. We had regular idlis and mini idlis, perfect for the little ones.

The next hot dish was a hash brown breakfast casserole was straight from Alanna's recipe. I doubled the recipe to make it in a 9x13 pan. I used spinach as the optional middle layer- two boxes of frozen chopped spinach that I thawed over 2 days in the fridge and then squeezed dry. This casserole is hearty and tasty and was a huge hit. 
The final hot dish was a kid favorite and requested by Lila: classic mac and cheese. I use a pretty standard recipe, much like this Martha Stewart one. I made the bechamel sauce the day before, and boiled macaroni and baked the mac and cheese on the morning of the party. 

As part of the brunch spread, I made two kinds of sandwiches. One was the ever-popular PB&J except that two of the little guests were allergic to peanuts so I chose sunflower butter instead of peanut butter. 
The other sandwiches were cream cheese-cucumber. Because this was a special occasion, I cut the crusts off (save them in the freezer to make breadcrumbs or use in vegetable patties) and cut them into small triangles to make two-three bite sandwiches. 

Also on the table: a tub of hummus with baby carrots and pita chips. All store bought. 

The yogurt bar was store-bought vanilla yogurt served with several toppings: (a) cut fresh fruits- apples, strawberries, pineapples, (b) homemade granola, (c) cheerios, (d) dried fruit- raisins and cranberries. I set out bowls and let everyone assemble their own yogurt parfaits.

The menu worked well and everyone seemed to find something that they liked to eat. We made plenty of fresh coffee for the grown-ups. Much of the food was store-bought (yogurt, hummus, pita chips, cheerios), easy to prep (fruits, sandwiches) and easy to make ahead (idlis, mac and cheese). This was very important because Friday was a working day and the guests started pouring in quite early on Saturday so there was not a lot of prep time.

The party was noisy, chaotic and lots of fun. I wanted to organize a few party games like pinning a candle on a cupcake/passing the parcel but never got around to it, and anyway the kids were busy running around and doing their own thing. It was all over by noon, and the birthday girl went to take a nap. After cleaning up and devouring the leftovers, we had the rest of the day to relax and watch her enjoy her presents- including a book, a memory game, an art kit, a play tent. And so started the fifth year of my little girl's life, in the company of friends, family and the Elsa cake of her dreams.