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December is my absolute favorite month of the year, not least because I have a birthday in it. Holidays, family, people doing lovely things for each other, eating well and just a general air of warm and fuzzies. But despite amazing food and birthday presents and vacations, this birthday month turned out to be slightly more existential-stress-fraught than usual. I don’t think turning 30 had much to do with it – that number is not as daunting as people would have you believe.
But it’s funny how things go. Stressed though I was, and faced with the utter fear of the unknown, I found myself reasoning with myself, making choices and making micro-adjustments internally and surprise surprise. I gave myself the best birthday present I could have asked for. Peace of mind. Hard won and well earned in the end.
Add to that a few simple pleasures – people I love around me and remembering me, good food, some wholesome exercise, fun chatter, some deep conversation, good new people - I think I had one of the best birthdays this year. Just pure, simple, unadulterated happiness and peace. Not wild party happiness. Not wow amazing presents happiness. Not oh joy, everyone loves me happiness. Just…. satisfaction with life.
And turns out at my age, peace of mind is far more a girl’s best friend than a diamond ever could be.
I’ve recently moved to a new-old place. Very familiar from months spent in a happy surrender to self-discovery. And new because now I live here. Am no longer as transient as I thought and now have to be grounded in this place…be mundane when called for, responsible, real. And yet, I feel unhinged. Like I’ve been thrown in to the deep end without a lifesaver. And now I have to remember I knew how to swim. Quite well even. And loved it not too long ago. The strokes reminded me of my strength and ability and gave me pleasure. It’s a vague memory that I need to relearn and touch and hold again. Soon.
There is a world of things that need to be done. Inside and out. To who I am, what I do, where I live. So instead of what I usually do which is worry and then overcompensate by being utterly relaxed, this time I’m going to try this. Just simply doing. And doing another thing. And then doing it again. One step after another.
Sometimes, especially when the skies are like lead and the rain just won’t let up, or other times when it feels like winter inside you, a shot of hot, dark, delicious chocolate sets the world in order. As the warmth pools in your stomach and begins to slowly radiate through to your fingertips, on its way warming your heart and un-furrowing that brow, this is love and warmth and a hug in a mug.
And it tastes darned good too. Good enough that you really shouldn’t save it for a rainy day. Hot chocolate needs to be shared – on cozy evenings in, days spent planning a project, sharing nervous revelations, exhilarating secrets, tentative self-discovery, a reward at the end of a really hard piece of thinking, or a quiet moment to kickstart your mind. Really when is NOT the right moment for a cup of hot chocolate!
The point I’m making is this. Hot chocolate needs to be had. And man I had a good cup made for me a while back I just can’t get off my mind.
Now there is no one way to make it but to make it good, you’ve got to start with good things. Good chocolate, real milk and not water…really! And just a little care. This cup I’m talking about was actually a mug filled with about 20g of good chocolate, 2-3 pieces. I like my cocoa dark so I would use a dark, semi sweet chocolate. (Another version I liked used one mini Mr.Goodbar and a mini dark Hershey’s piece). And god as I write this, I think I’m going to try my hot chocolate with a splash of gran marnier tonight!
The chocolate was then melted. In a Microwave which isn’t romantic but it’s easy and quick. So choose what you’re feeling and go with stove-top or microwave accordingly. No one needs to know. Now this next bit is key. The chocolate was whisked! A pinch of salt was added and whisked in with that melted chocolate. Warm milk was poured over the chocolate and then whisked some more. Because the cup lost some of its heat, another 30 seconds in the microwave warmed it up perfectly. I’d top it off with a dash of cream if the mood demands it but my god that cup was good to go. Frothy, deep cocoa flavor, salt just making it lovely and satisfying.
Now I know I’ve just gone on and on about hot chocolate which is beyond simple to make and not the least bit insightful for most but really, me, a passionate lover of chocolate, I had no clue how to do this. All my previous hot cocoa attempts were either too wimpy or far too rich to be anything but sinful. This cup was almost wholesome!
It’s that time of the year when even in Bombay, wintry feelings start to envelope you and ideas of roaring fireplaces and cozy razais start floating around in your head. So, with images of Christmas and holiday planning and Christmas carols everywhere, I think a few cups of hot chocolate are definitely called for.
Except it really isn’t that easy. Bombay feels like the hottest it’s ever been – can’t go 20 minutes these days without a drink of cold water to stay sane. Can’t go 5 minutes out in the open without feeling like your skin is melting.
I remember another hot summer many years ago when we were making our way to Jodhpur and our flight was meant to make a stop in Jaipur before continuing on. But it got cancelled mid-way, leaving us stranded in a strange town.
During this memorable summer vacation where temperatures hit 49°C, my beautiful young mother with my baby brother and a pre-teen me in tow had to find a way to get to Jodhpur from Jaipur before dark and the whole thing felt a bit like an adventure, a little scary, a bit of the thrill of the unknown, but most of all – HOT! The only way to get to Jodhpur turned out to be a beat up old, un-air-conditioned Ambassador taxi with the curtains at the windows our only feeble defence against heat and dust.
We made our arduous way to Jodhpur, the 3 of us piled in the back of the Ambassador and to make things extra uncomfortable, in the interest of modesty my mother made me wear a shirt under my sleeveless dress and I remember feeling like I was being tortured. Like I was being wrapped in foil to be left out in the sun to roast.
This journey was, in short, the most uncomfortably hot hours I’ve ever spent anywhere – parched, too many thick layers of clothing, no sleep and never ending!
This memory was very fresh last weekend as Bombay boiled over and my Thar Desert roots gave me a special appreciation for the cool comfort of air-conditioning and the need to stay hydrated.
So, in order to keep the dehydration at bay we’ve been eating fresh, crunchy salads or just plain fruit for dinner most nights. Now I’m not really a salad girl but it’s been a fun month of discovery and I loved what I did one night with a fresh pear, some grapes and cheese.
Fresh Pear Salad - Serves 2 for a very light dinner
1 fresh, crunchy pear sliced thinly
1/2 a small head of lettuce, roughly torn
Thin slices of Gouda or probably any cheese you have on hand
Handful of juicy, sweet and plump grapes, quartered
2 slender spring onions, just the whites, minced
1 or 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Toss all the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing. Pour dressing over salad and toss well.
And dig into the freshest, coolest, crunchiest salad that sings when the little grape pieces yield their sweet, cool juices in your mouth.
Savory recipes that capture my imagination enough to do anything more than bookmark them for future reference are few and far between, but eggs…they’re beautiful. And so easy. That’s what I love most about them…something so simple that can be dressed up, dressed down…taken any way you want. So I finally made something unsweet that was a little experimental, a little rough around the edges, but a lot of delicious, savory, satisfaction.
This one was for my poor husband who suffers (ha! I wouldn’t mind suffering like that) through all my sweet obsessions, experiments, what have you – all the while craving something..anything!..a little savory, something with a little meat in it. So I threw him a bone…er…I mean an egg.
I’m not sure what to call them yet… they’re my bacon, egg and cheese cups that I would have loved to make with actual puff pastry but in a rush, ended up improvising with some frozen paratha instead.
So here goes!
Well pots of pepper at any rate.
Growing up, I wouldn’t call myself an odd or picky eater but I did have a couple of teeny quirks. I loved okra a.k.a bhindi or ladyfinger, which is sadly a widely hated vegetable. And I hated bell peppers a.k.a capsicum, which is pretty much indispensable in my kitchen these days.
Ever read about people hating coriander/cilantro with a passion because it smells a bit off to them (ickily descriptive New York Times article on why)? I think that’s how I felt about capsicum. They always smelled and tasted a bit funky. I religiously picked them out of my food and piled them neatly on the side of my plate.
But now! They look like little lanterns in all their pretty colors and they taste fantastic, particularly the yellow and red ones. Raw they’re crunchy, sweet, juicy and a bit like I’m eating some sunlight. Cooked they transform into so many kinds of awesome. They’re great in salads, stir-frys, tomato-based pasta sauces, in my fancy mac-n-cheese, with eggs, in eggs, roasted, in sandwiches and oh plenty more. I’ve fallen for peppers quite hard to be honest.
My latest favorite thing to do with them is to make my version of a peperonata which is a capsicum stew that can be almost jam-like and packs a flavor punch when added to any number of things:
- On toast topped with a fried egg
- Cooked with a little garlic and an additional splash of extra virgin olive oil, it’s great with some al-dente spaghetti
- With a little turmeric and chili powder cooked along with it, mashed up paneer stirred through it – easy weeknight dinner
- A little bacon, ham or other deli meat browned and added to the mix – the possibilities are endless.
It’s flexible and luscious and even manages to lift up some shop bought pizza crust to something quite delicious. Which is exactly what I did one tired weeknight. Whipped up some peperonata, spooned it onto the shop-bought crust, sliced some mushrooms and olives, browned a little ham, a little cheese and you’re off. 15 minutes in the oven and that’s dinner!
Breakfasts are my absolute favorite of all meals, especially those not on the run. There aren’t too many things as satisfying as the idea of a crisply laid out table on a sunny porch, overlooking a lush and still-damp green lawn, chirping birds…maybe a swimming pool off to the side…and you know…not costing Rs.1850 + taxes to enjoy.
This love for all things breakfasty has led to many fantastic brunches that melt away in a slightly alcoholic haze as the afternoon sun glints off our glasses and silverware and we find ourselves struggling to split the bill and calculate a decent tip. It has also translated into some pretty awesome home cooked meals obviously not limited to the AM because Chez Sugardrops is an All-Day-Breakfast and Open-Bar establishment.
Some of the highlights of this long-standing love affair range from the simplest fried egg on buttered toast to elaborate pancakes and tortillas. There have been luscious stewed apples with cinnamony french toast, crusty potato and sausage hash, boozy bourbon banana bread, elaborate roast pepper and chorizo frittata and pancakes in so many forms – ricotta pancakes with a fresh peach compote, buttermilk pancakes with dried blueberries, eggnog pancakes courtesy joythebaker (whose love for pancakes is legendary), chocolate pancakes with strawberries – all with endless drizzles of maple syrup.
One might notice a tendency towards the sweeter breakfast but one of my current favorites is this gorgeous omelet which is a Sunday morning staple at my in-laws’ place. Nothing fancy, no precious ingredients, just the simplest combination of onions and tomatoes cooked till they’re perfectly savory-sweet.