Monday, 9 February 2015

Steamed Nutmeg Flan
I am always endlessly fascinated by the synchronicity of food and culture. Take a simple mixture of eggs, milk/ cream and sugar, for example. From Mexico to England to France to Vietnam, there is a version of this dish that takes in the best of what the culture has to offer and turns it into a classic. Whether it is the Mexican or Vietnamese flan, the humble English custard, the fancier creme anglaise, or creme caramel or creme brulee, this simple, comforting dessert transcends borders and cultures.

A lot of the cuisine I've grown up with is an amalgamation of this cultural absorption. Having grown up on the edge of Portuguese ruled Goa and with a strong 'Western' influence on food, a lot of what we ate was the Indianised version of Portuguese, British or French cuisine. Vindalho, for example or jhalfrezi.

There were, and are, some dishes though that were a unique combination of the person making them, and traditional European classics. This nutmeg flan - a specialty of my mom's - is one of them. When I first decided to make it myself, I remember asking my mom where she got the recipe. She shrugged and said, nowhere. It was one of those recipes which she probably ate at a friends' place, and then recreated it at home, using her own memories of the dish.

This is an interesting aspect of cooking, for me. I grew up with instinctive cooking, yet over the years I have learned to follow recipes and techniques to come up with perfect dishes. Not to say that my cooking isn't good, but I must admit that sometimes I miss the instinctiveness of food, where you grab a glance inside the refrigerator and make a dish based on what you find there. The way my mom usually cooks. The best part about this kind of cooking is the modifications that individual cooks make to their own cooking. My Aunt Helen, for example, uses milk soaked bread in this same pudding - mimicking a classic bread and butter pudding, whereas my mum keeps it very simple with just milk, eggs, sugar and nutmeg, which is more reminiscent of a Mexican or a Vietnamese style of flan.

For me, this dish is the essence of my childhood. Despite its simplicity, Mum only made this for special occasions - or when she had some time off school.

Steamed Nutmeg Flan

My sister and I were always sent out to get fresh milk very early in the morning on most weekdays, and Saturdays in particular. Mum had Saturdays off, while we had a half day of school. We got our milk and eggs from the local nunnery, a cloistered convent. My sister and I would stand outside a heavy wooden door waiting for Sister Laetitia, who was the spokesperson for the order and the only nun who was allowed outside the order. Sister Laetitia would poke her head out at us, smile an incredibly sweet smile, and ask us about school, our mom, our aunts. Small talk over, she would then hand over cans of fresh milk, thick and warm with a delicate yellow layer of cream on top. On the way back, sister and I would grumble constantly at the weight of the milk, each trying to pawn the heavy can on to the other.

Once home, we were dispatched to get ready for school, while mum carefully skimmed off the cream (she used it to make fresh butter) and then heated the milk for our milky coffees. Coffee and breakfast done, we headed off to school, while mum caught up with life. We would be back in the afternoons, and we were always threatened into bed for naps, despite protests. We did nap though, because we knew that when we woke up the house would be fragrant with a medley of aromas... and my favourite one of all, the smell of freshly grated nutmeg, which meant that mum had made this amazing pudding.

The nutmeg were also from our garden. We were dispatched up skinny, dangerously listing ladders to pick this delicious spice, covered in it's lacy red-orange mace. The mace was dried for use in garam masala, while the nutmeg was broken up to use in various other preparations, including this flan.

Mum called her flan a 'custard' and unlike crème brûlée or creme caramel, it is not baked, but steamed (I suspect because we didn't have an oven.) When I asked mom for the recipe, she, surprisingly for her, gave me fairly precise quantities. I played around a bit until I got the proportions right.

The original melt-in-your-mouth texture of this pudding was from mum using just whole milk, rather than adding cream, but I do like the richer texture that I get from using a dash of cream in my own recipe. The caramel syrup is also interesting - it is similar to the caramel used in creme caramel, but not as dark and is made separately, before being poured over the flan. This flan can't handle being flipped, as it is extremely delicate. I like to serve it in small ramekins, but you can also make it in a glass pie dish, and scoop out generous portions into bowls. There is a lot of nutmeg in this dish, it is not for the faint of heart. The nutmeg adds its characteristic fragrance, but also a distinctive bitterness that makes this flan truly unforgettable.

One bite of this creamy, melting, lightly sweet, slightly bitter pudding transports me straight back to those sunny afternoons, waking up to the fragrance of nutmeg and caramel, racing into the kitchen to scoop out the first bite (without even letting it cool down a bit) It reminds me of all my school achievements, which are indelibly nuanced with the flavour of this flan. It is the taste of small victories, of carefree warm sunny days and my mum at home... and comfort food, at its very best.

Steamed Nutmeg Flan

(Printable Recipe)

1½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
½ cup half and half (10% cream) or heavy cream
3 eggs
½ cup sugar, divided
½ of a whole nutmeg
½ cup water, divided


Place the milk and cream in a large bowl, and stir in ¼ cup sugar. Whisk gently, until the sugar dissolves. Add the eggs, and beat until creamy.

Grate about 1 teaspoon of fresh nutmeg into this mixture, and whisk well. Pour into a heatproof glass pie dish (or into 4 ramekins).

Place a heatproof trivet in a large pot, and place the pie dish or ramekins on top. Gently pour in enough boiling water, so it just touches the bottom of the pie dish. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid, and steam the flan for 30 minutes, until it is set, but with a wobbly middle.

While the flan is steaming, make the caramel syrup. Place the remaining sugar in a heavy based pan, and gently sprinkle over the ¼ cup water. Place on a medium heat, and simmer gently until the sugar melts into a sticky golden brown caramel (watch it carefully and don't let it burn). Take off the heat and stir in the remaining water, until you have a thin, caramelly syrup.

When the flan is done, gently run a sharp knife around the edges. Pour in the caramel syrup around the edges, so the flan is soaked in the syrup.

Serve the flan warm, at room temperature or chilled.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Is local the new 'sacred'? This is the provocative question asked by sociologist Mervyn Horgan in his thoughtful analysis of the movement against development and to protect agricultural land in Nova Scotia. Horgan’s article focuses on the story of four farmers in rural Nova Scotia who submitted an application to rezone their land for commercial development. This led to an outcry – with the intention of keeping the farmland rural – led by the group, No Farms, No Food who worked collectively and overturned the rezoning of the land. Horgan argues that by invoking the ‘sacred’ aspect of local, No Farms, No Food successfully mounted a campaign that not just reverses political decisions, but also “turns the world around.”

A similar protest occurred in northeast Edmonton, when agricultural land was rezoned for low-density housing. In this case, however, the project went ahead. While sympathetic to the agricultural cause, the mayor of Edmonton did not, however, see the economics working out in favour of keeping the farmland intact. These articles spurred me to write this piece on local farmer John Schneider of Gold Forest Grains. John’s story is familiar – local, organic farmer tries to make a living by standing by his principles and hoping that we do the same.

There is no doubting that the words ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are trendy. But what does this mean for the people who farm organically? I wanted to talk to a person who has made being local and organic part of his life in an unassuming way – not because it is cool or popular or ‘what we should be doing’ – but because of his longstanding belief that we need to look after the land for future generations.

I first met John Schneider when he was a guest at a cooking class. I’d heard a lot about him already, but I was still struck by his passionate articulation of his chosen ethos of organic, heritage farming and local food. John is a sixth generation farmer and zealous about changing the way food is grown and produced and how people eat. His father owned a ‘conventional’ farm, where he grew up, mostly feeling like farming was “just a job, like any other.” However, he ended up buying his own farm in his mid-thirties. He credits his determination to go organic to his father – who ended up working with chemicals and subsequently passed away – and his wife, Cindy, who is involved with the organic movement and nutrition.

I meet John, big, bluff and very farmer-like, at our local farmer’s market. We chat often. He occasionally looks tired, a result of his 5 A.M. starts travelling to the city, but his eyes are bright and smile wide, as he gesticulates, and chats animatedly to locals and visitors who throng the market. For John, local goes hand in hand with sustainable. “I want to leave a positive footprint on this world – a large one. But first I have to get rid of every bit of my negative footprint, go down to zero, and then start again,” he emphasises.

I ask John about his children. Does he want them to run the farm after him? He shrugs. “My children have the freedom to do what they want to do with their lives. I can’t ask them to follow the path I’ve chosen, but I do hope at some point, they feel the call of the land and come back to the farm.” I mention Horgan’s farmers to John. He listens to the story, and tells me that he understand what they are going through as well. But for him, his philosophy on organic farming and farming, in general, is not negotiable. He has a few more years to go, and as he puts it, "I do organic because it is the right thing to do – the right thing for me to do – not because it is trendy or a fast growing agricultural sector."

It’s not to say that we did not feel sorry for the farmers in Horgan’s study, who truly felt that the way forward was development. I, for one, understand that it must have been a hard decision to sell your land and to realise that the future for farming can be bleak. It also doesn’t help when people pressure you to follow the current status quo of the local as sacred. John and I never did find out what happened to those farmers once the rezoning application was overturned, but John’s farm is still there, and if he has his way, it will continue to be there for a long time. For John, local is truly sacred. Giving back to the land, preserving heirloom and heritage wheat, making sure that we preserve a better world for future generations – this, indeed, is his religion.

Vegetable Upma with Gold Forest Grains' Steel Cut Oats
(Printable Recipe)

2 tablespoons neutral oil (I used local canola)
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
10 curry leaves, picked
1 teaspoon whole dry red lentils
1/2 onion, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
1 hot chile pepper, finely chopped
1 cup steel-cut oats
2 cups mixed vegetables, diced fine (I used carrots, peppers and peas)
2 cups hot water

Heat the oil in a small, heavy based saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. When the seeds splutter, about 30 seconds, add the red lentils and fry for a minute.

Add the onions and chillies, and fry gently until the onions are translucent.

Add the vegetables and oats and cook together for a few minutes. Add the water to the pan, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for five minutes.

Turn the heat down to medium low, and cook the upma, covered for about twenty minutes, stirring occasionally, until the oats are cooked, with a little bit of a bite to them.

Serve warm.

Recipe Background and Notes (not included as part of the post):

John and I hosted an Indian cooking class in his home. He wanted to do it because he loves Indian food. I wanted to do it because I believed that ethnic, traditional food does not mean giving up heritage or local. Our class, along with my friend Addie Raghavan, was the perfect combination of local meets the world.

I can proudly say that 90% of the ingredients we used in our class were local. The only non-local items were the spices, lemons, prawns (and these were from Canada, too) and the curry leaves (I have plans to grow these in my house this year.) We made pav (Indian bread rolls) and tandoori rotis with John’s Park Wheat flour. The spiced lentil salad was made with John’s own lentils. For us, the big hit was this vegetable oat upma, which Addie suggested. It is such a traditional Indian dish, but worked perfectly with all the local ingredients and John’s own organic lentils and steel cut oats and is the perfect way to start your day or even as part of a delicious Indian brunch.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

This month marks the start of my seventh year of blogging and writing about food. It might be a cliched saying, but what a journey it has been. The last six years - and last year, in particular - have been a roller coaster ride of learning, teaching, understanding and connecting. I've done things that scared the living daylights out of me, but at the same time helped me to understand myself a lot better. I fell back in love with my home country, India. I embarked on a new job that I love, and I have been writing and developing recipes non-stop. I started food styling, learned that less is more when it comes to my own style of photography and attended conferences where I met and connected with people that I've admired greatly. 2015 almost seems like an anti-climax after all the excitement of 2014. But here it is, and it is time to start a new journey.

This year, I am going to start writing about things that challenge me and make me grow as a food writer and a cook. So over the next few months, I hope to do at least one post which is a step-by-step to something that I have never attempted before, or a dish/ technique/ idea that I have been working on, but never thought about writing down properly. I am also planning on doing a lot more writing, going back to the basics of why I started this site, which is to share memories of my homeland. So you can expect to see a lot more traditional Indian recipes on here and all the wonderful memories that they are associated with.

To start off with, I've been reviewing Bread Revolution by Peter Reinhart for The Kitchn. Reinhart talks about sprouted wheat flour a fair bit in his new book. I couldn't find the flour here, so I decided to make my own. A quick trip down to John's Gold Forest Grains at Strathcona Market, and I had wheat berries to start my own flour.

Hey Jacqui!

The process was not as straightforward as Reinhart makes it seem, but I did succeed with a little bit of trial and error. And the flour was so good, I think I might be addicted. I made a ton of baked goods with it, and I can totally see why he raves about it. It was a lot healthier, and it was also pretty easy to bake with. I had to adjust a little for my altitude (and had a little mishap with a focaccia), but other than that, everything I made with this wheat flour, including a really great pizza, turned out amazing. I think I can safely say that my first challenge was a pretty good success.

I decided to document this process with as many pictures as I could. There are notes at the end about what I did and what I could do better. I used wheat berries, but Reinhart reckons that you can make this flour with any sprouted seeds.

How To Sprout Wheat Berries to Make Your Own Sprouted Flour

For the first step you will need about 1.6 kgs wheat berries. Rinse them well under cold running water. Place in a bowl, then cover with fresh cool water.

Soak them for about 6 - 8 hours (4 - 6 hours, if you live in a less dry climate)

Drain the wheat berries, give them another rinse, then place in a colander over a bowl. Cover the berries with a damp cloth (again, this is because of the dry air in my house in Edmonton.) You can also place in a sieve, over a bowl.

Place the bowl in a warm place. I like to keep it close to a heat register. The wheat berries will take anywhere between 12 - 24 hours to start sprouting.

Once they start to sprout, they will look a bit like the above picture. Once they start to sprout, leave them for an extra 6 - 8  hours.

This picture might seem a bit weird, but there is a reason for it. Once the grains have sprouted, spread them out on a baking tray lined with a tea towel. Place them in a warm room, with a fan of some sort to keep the air moving. We have an air purifier in the house, which has a fan function, so it worked perfectly for drying the grains.

Change the tea towel every six hours or so - also stir the grains around. The sprouts will start to shrink back into the grains as they dry.

Let the grains dry completely. This can take anywhere from 12 - 24 hours. Make sure they are completely dry before the next step.

Reinhart recommends not placing them in a low oven as any kind of heat will destroy the nutrients that the sprouting process has achieved.

It took my grains about 24 hours to dry completely.

Once the grains are dry, you can mill them. I used my powerful dry grinder to mill them. I turn my grinder on for about 15 - 20 seconds at a time, then stirring, so that the grains don't stick. Make sure that the grinder doesn't heat up as you blend. If it does, empty the grains out and let them, and the grinder, cool down before milling again.

A Vitamix is apparently very good for milling grains, and they also do a grain canister. I would imagine any powerful blender would do as well. Just remember to only blend for a few seconds at a time. If you have a grain mill, well, can I borrow it? :)

Ideally, you want to mill the sprouted grains just once, to the consistency you want to keep the nutrients intact. However, if the flour is too coarse, you could possibly sieve and then mill the coarse grains again until you get the consistency you want.

And voila!

Freshly milled sprouted wheat flour at your service. I place my flour in a heavy duty brown paper bag (you can repurpose old flour bags) and store it in the fridge to keep it fresh.

Use it as you would your regular flour, however, I have found that it needs a little less liquid to give the same results. Bread Revolution has some excellent recipes to help you get started, or you can always look for recipes online. I will be posting one or two in a few weeks time.

So, what do you think of my new challenges? And what kind of recipes would you like see more of on this site? All suggestions are very welcome.

Monday, 29 December 2014

This year, we had a quiet (yes, social media free) holiday season, and to be honest, it was relaxing. Just the three of us, opening presents on Christmas day, with hot chocolate, Archie comics and the couch, a simple but delicious Christmas dinner, some good wine and a twinkling tree.

And a peaceful holiday is what our family needed after a hectic year. It was a great year, for sure, and my life changed hugely from month to month. But it was when I was lying on the couch, absorbed in my Christmas present (for curious cats, it was a couch blanket and the Life with Archie series, best present ever) I realised that there is nothing like spending time with the child and partner, watching them build Lego and do puzzles, drifting in and out of sleep, and it made for a particularly relaxed end of the year. 

However, I do enjoy socialising too, and I am lucky to be surrounded by incredibly supportive friends and colleagues. It has been a year full of ups and downs, and the ups were the friends I made and old friendships that blossomed into deep, enduring bonds. I can't believe that just about five years have passed since we upped and moved from England. While I still get homesick for both India and England, I love my life here and everything it has brought with it. So here is to another year, filled to the brim with memories and taking chances. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

I love it when a plan comes together. This month, the Turkey Farmers of Canada wanted me get into the spirit of the season and come up with a canape that is perfect for entertaining. After all, one of the best parts of the holiday season is all those little parties and get togethers that we are always hosting or attending. So I put my Santa thinking cap on, and I decided that I wanted to incorporate some of my own heritage into a classic turkey tradition.

The combination of turkey, cranberry sauce and brie is, of course, a classic for many reasons, not least because it is pretty dang delicious. Last week I did a food styling job for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, and let's just say, I had a lot of cheese left over. Mmmmm, cheese. So I put my Santa thinking cap back on, and tried to figure out where I could add the spice.

Then it came to me - I always serve my delicious spicy-sweet date chutney with sweet pulao at Christmas, and it would be the perfect substitute for cranberry sauce in this combination. So imagine me, rubbing my hands with glee, and going ho ho ho... it is off to India we go.

I loved the combination of the deliciously moist shredded turkey, soft, creamy brie and this savoury-spicy-sweet chutney. If you are looking for something a little different, but still super easy, then these guys are for you. And the best part is, you can even make them using leftover turkey from your Christmas dinner. See, I even saved your New Year's party. Now, if you'll excuse me, it is time for me to go put on my Santa party hat and dive into a bottle of vino :)

So what are you waiting for? Head on over to the Tasty Turkey website to download your recipe now.

Click for the recipe - Crostini with Turkey, Brie and Spicy-Sweet Date Chutney  

And as usual, if you have any questions, mosey on back and I'll be more than happy to answer them for you :) Enjoy!