Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Deepshikha's Bengali Goat Meat Curry in Oven -- at Smokies

This Spring Break we went to the Smoky Mountains -- the Great Smoky Mountains. One of the few national parks in the east coast. I am a sucker for National Parks and after our Yellowstone trip last year, my secret desire is to visit all of them. Does not seem like that will happen in this lifetime with the money and time I have at my disposal but that does not mean I won't try.

But the Great Smoky Mountains did not happen out of my love of National Parks. It happened because that was the place decided for a mini reunion of our college friends from twenty years back. It happened millions of whatsapp chats, several hangout sessions late in the night and couple of Google spreadsheets later.

Each hangout was peppered with more serious issues than the last. Luchi or eggs and bacon at breakfast? Pathar manghso on Saturday or bbq? Cookies with tea or muri-chanachur? Pasta for kids or Maggi? Yes we are very focused like that.

Finally a beautiful 8 bedroom chalet in the mountains was booked, food items from goat meat to mustard oil, maggi to maacher chop were packed, and we were all ready for the 12 hour long drive to Tennessee.

If I am honest my first impression of the Smokies as we entered Pigeon Forge was that of deep disappointment. I had Yellowstone and Grand Canyon on my mind and had not expected traffic jams and departmental stores from Wal-Mart to Macy's at the throes of a national park. The fact that we reached on a Friday which was a holiday could have contributed to the throng of crowd.

The deck with the beautiful view

Once we managed to cross all the traffic lights and crawl onto the mountain roads, the traffic peeled off and feel of the forest came back. The path up the mountains had several switchbacks and took scary sharp turns. The trees grew closer and the air turned crisp. My faith in national parks was restored.

It was early spring and the trees were mostly bare except for the light green haze of budding new leaves and splashes of spring flowers here and there. After going through a couple of wrong turns and several phone calls to friends who were already at the chalet, we finally reached the house with a truly "breathtaking view". The Mountains rose right across from the house, its peaks swirled in the typical bluish haze that is quintessential to Smokies.

The kids had lot of fun on zip lines and horse back rides. We went to Jayell's Ranch where even the little ones could zip line on a shorter trail

It was much fun meeting friends after so many years, getting to know their kids, the better halves and generally indulging in what we call in Bengali as "bhaat" -- meaningless banter. Food and adda were the focal points in the backdrop of the mountains. It was fun to see the kids bond with their new friends and have  a great time of their own.

While we were discussing the menu in the days leading to the trip, and trust me it would always end up without a consensus, there was the question of how to cook the goat meat. Should we carry a Pressure cooker ? Will the kitchen have a large enough heavy bottomed pan to cook goat meat for twenty people ? Will Donald Trump be the president ? Should we move to Canada ? You know that kind of questions on which no consensus can be ever reached.

Smokies has lots of pretty waterfalls. We did the Laurel Fall and Grotto Fall hike. Each were approx. 3 mile round trip and easy hike with kids

At this point when everyone was arguing over chat and not really listening to anyone else, our friend from Ohio, Deepshikha said, "We will do the Panthar Mangsho(Goat Meat curry) in the oven. You don'y need anything else except for a largei-ish aluminum tray".

This was so profound that we all just stayed quiet until I mustered to courage to ask "if it tasted good". I shouldn't have. Asked that is. Deepshikha and Biplab are trailblazers in Ohio, investing a lot of time and effort in their local community, doing Durga Pujo and throwing lavish parties with tons of food. They KNOW how to cook mutton in oven and make it taste as good as kosha mangsho.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

শুভ নব বর্ষ -- Shubho Nabo Borsho

If I had total free rein, this is what I would eat on Poila Boishakh to start off the New Year

Because it is Posto and it reminds me that the greatest joys come from the simplest things

Because this is the best time to eat Potol while it is still tender and eminently edible. You get done with it on the first day of Boishakh and then you are a free bird.

Because it reminds me of Mother Earth

Because there is no day that a Dim Kosha cannot make better

Because salmon is a fish I always have in my refrigerator and it goes so well with the Bengali recipe of doi-maach reminding me that I am lucky to celebrate two New Year days in a single calendar year.

Because it tells me that even when you think there is nothing new to be done, no quest to pursue, you find treasures in the ancient ones.

Because it is so very green and fresh just like the notun bochor

I would not make any dessert after this but would love to finish off with a bowl of Nolen Gur er ice cream

Because sometimes you need to put up your feet and take a large scoop

Have a lovely start to the Bengali New Year tomorrow

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Neem-Phol aka Grandmother's sweet

Sometimes families have recipes no one has heard of. Not recipes already around, that they make in their own special way and give a special name like "Dinajpurer Mangshor Chaap"(I don't know what it is but honestly I saw this on a menu). Nor are they the one time wonders I make almost every other day and forget soon after.

These are recipes that have been handed down with careful instructions from one generation to next and are cooked periodically or on demand. They are much cherished and yet, no one outside the family has ever heard of it. It has not crossed anyone's mind to ever talk about it.

I was introduced to one such dish, well not exactly a dish, but a sweet picker-upper at my in-law's home. I think it was one of those times, when we were leaving for the US after a short vacation. The last two days of a India vacation invariably ends in gathering edible stuffs that we can carry across oceans in sturdy samsonites. While I usually rush around in those last hours buying Mukhorochak chanachur, Mongini's cheese straws and Sunrise mustard powder, the husband-man reaches out for specialities found only in his small town. It is his duty to get "lero biskut" and "madoan kat kati" -- tiny square pieces of spicy biscuit with hint of sweetness .

In addition to those, there are all kinds nimkis and narus that my Mother is frying and rolling until the last minute and stuffing in steel containers called koutos. So among all this jars and packets and boxes that we had to carefully wrap and tuck in, there was my Ma-in-law with one more. A glass Horlicks jar filled with with tiny balls,not exactly spherical but ovoid in shape and deep brown almost black in color. Each were the size of a fat pea and had fine white crystals of sugar on them.It wasn't anything I had ever seen before.

The husband-man's face lit up at the sight of that jar. "Neem Phol!!!" he said with a child like glee.

Neem phol?? Fruits of the neem tree whose leaves are famous for bitter taste and medicinal properties?? The nomenclature itself shut me off. The husband-man has this uncanny love for all things bitter and so I thought his Mother had gathered one more of her son's favorite bitter fruit and made something with it. I was not at all excited to say the least.

"Try it," said the husband-man. It was his favorite apparently.

I was hesitant but my curiosity made me pick up a single one to give it a try. And surprise! It was crunchy, sweet and very very addictive. Reminded me of the "murki" that my Dida used to make and carry for us in similar glass jars. The murki was lighter brown and softer while this was denser and had a crunch to it. It was very hard to stop at one and the jar had to be snatched away from me, else I would have finished it all.

Since then, a jar of "neem-phol" is a staple along with the nimkis, narus and chanachur we pack from India. I have never tried to get a recipe for it though. I kept procrastinating and relying on the jar from India. Last year when my in-laws came visiting, as usual there was a jar of "neem-phol" tucked besides the achhar and bori. Little Sis, opened it and had one.Soon she was having more and was utterly smitten by what she called "Thammir mishti". When it was time for my in-laws to leave, Little Sis wanted to make sure that there was more of that mishti for her. So "thammi" was coerced into making another batch of "neem-phol". And though I have never tried to learn how to make neem-phol earlier, I stood around to follow the steps so that if LittleSis ever asks again and this jar is over I can make some more.

Though at her own home, my mother-in-law makes it with khoya-kheer, here she made it with store-bought khoya aka mawa. They were basically small balls of kheer, deep fried and then tossed in thick sugar syrup.

High in cholesterol and sugar. Utterly delightful in taste. Isn't that how it is always ?

"Where did you learn this recipe from?" I asked the ma-in-law. 
She said, it was her mother's, who made it mostly during poush-parbon. Once all the pithes, pulis and patishaptas were done and still some of the "khoa-kheer" remained, her mother would make these little balls of delight with the remnant kheer. 
"And why did she call it neem-phol?", I asked expecting a long story. 
"It looks like neem phol, fruits of the neem tree, that is why," she said simply