Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Summer Foods

As I sit and write of summer foods in India, I think of two English women who have, in part, made it possible.  Nora, who has served as a constant source of support for my blogging and who has encouraged me to unabashedly write about food (which I thought this blog was perhaps getting an overdose of).  Elizabeth David, whose classic and timeless cookbooks brought 'sunshine and elegance' to post war greyness and continue to do so in modern times.

As the sun sears everything in sight and I long to sit in an air conditioned car, drive to an air conditioned supermarket and buy whatever is available, I am severely admonished by Elizabeth David.  She writes in the introduction to her book "Summer Cooking'' (first published in 1955) :

"A couple of years ago an advocate of the tin and the deep freeze wrote to a Sunday newspaper explaining that  frozen or tinned vegetables were better than fresh ones, as the "pick of the crop" goes straight to the factories to be frozen or tinned.  Can this be a matter for congratulation?  I am not unappreciative of modern marvels, and in its way the deep freeze is an admirable invention, particularly for the United States, where fresh produce has to be transported great distances.  Some foods, game, for example, stand up remarkably well to the freezing process, but let us not pretend that frozen green peas, raspberries, and blackberries are "as good as fresh".  They may indeed be quite adequate, and are an incontestable blessing to people pressed for time or space, or having to provide meals at very short notice, but is it necessary for those not in such circumstances to eat all the food out of season?  Frozen peas seem to have become the almost obligatory accompaniment to every meal, whether in private houses or restaurants; yet how often do we get a dish of those really delicate, fresh, sugary green  peas?  Is it because the "pick of the crop" has gone to the factory instead of to the market and we are therefore unable to buy them, or is it because people no longer know how to shell them and cook them and have forgotten what they taste like?
   The deep freeze appears to have gained over the minds of the English housewife and restaurant keeper a hypnotic power such as never was exercised by the canning factories.  Even leaving out of consideration the fact that the pleasure of discovering each season's vegetables and fruits at the appropriate time is thereby quite blunted, this method of marketing seems to me an extravagant one.  As I write, there are lovely little South African pineapples in the greengrocer's down the road for 1s. 6d. each, sweet, juicy oranges at seven for a shilling, yet people are crowding round the deep freeze in the same shop paying four times as much for a few strawberries in a cardboard packet.  As soon as strawberries and raspberries are in season they will be clamouring for frozen pineapple and cartons of orange juice..."

I read this, sigh, put on my most summery clothes and head out to Russell Market.  The market is surprisingly clean - garbage has been cleared and wonder of wonders, they actually have electricity!  "What's happening?" I ask.  "Elections," people answer with a broad grin.  "The candidates are all terrible but until the elections, we have been given power."  The pun is unintended (appears only in translation; everyone in Russell Market speaks in Hindi).  State elections are round the corner and everyone's being generous with resources.  The market is also cool within, being housed in an old colonial building with high ceilings and plenty of air.  This is a natural coolness; it feels much nicer than air conditioned stores where one is chilled to the bone.

The market is not overflowing with food; summer is a difficult period for storage and transportation.  But much of what is available is fresh and there's quite enough for many good meals.  I buy the usual summer staples - onions, tomatoes, squashes, okra (lady's fingers), aubergine (brinjal).  In addition, real coriander (not the hybrid kind) - the one with a delicate fragrance, green mangoes and mint.  Then, as I am planning a party, I look for something different.  And I find - heaps of basil, celery and parsley (the flat leafed kind, which we rarely see), piles of baby corn and red peppers.  And tiny cucumbers, each displaying a flower at one end.  I can scarcely believe these are cucumbers, fresh off the vine!  I have never seen a cucumber flower in my life!  The shopkeeper is amused.  He throws in several extra pieces for good measure.

From the fruit shops, I select the very last of the strawberries, early mangoes and a couple of different kinds of melons.  I plan to serve some of the fruit with tiny sweet tarts and meringues that I have baked and thick, chilled cream on the side.

Earlier I used to refer to British recipes (which we have a family collection of, since my grandmother's time) for 'Western' cooking but these days I find the Mediterranean ones more useful.  This is partly because we are eating less meat and partly because the weather and availability of ingredients favours Mediterranean (and Asian) cooking.  Of course, often times, I just modify or concoct recipes based on classic compositions.

For the party, we had a thickened curd dip, with hints of fresh coriander and mint.  I served this with a collection of crackers (my experiments with different kinds of flours, nuts and seeds) and with slices of radish and baby cucumbers and crisp celery stalks.  Just for information, the tiny yellow thing in the centre is a cucumber flower!

I made two kinds of pasta - a carbonara (bacon, eggs and cream) for the meat eaters and one with fresh tomato and basil for everyone.  In addition we had a platter of thinly sliced aubergine (brinjal), coated with breadcrumbs and fried crisp.  Also, large dishes of baby corn, red and yellow peppers, onions and basil, that were marinated in wine and olive oil and grilled.

Finally, the dessert - a medley of fruit, pastry, meringue and cream.  People could choose their own combinations.  It all went down smoothly (and cost just a fraction of what it might at a restaurant).
This, of course, is just the beginning of a long summer and my experiments with summer foods.

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