I’m the Creative Director of Cosa Nostra restaurants and come from a long line of restaurateurs, starting with my Italian grandmother who moved to Lahore in the 1970s and set up a little place serving burgers, sandwiches and soft serve ice cream.
Food is a serious passion in my family. During this time of crisis and uncertainty, it’s natural for us to seek refuge in the parts of our lives that bring us comfort and happiness. For me, cooking from a great recipe is one of those things. Keeping in mind the limited availability in grocery stores, I’ve shared simple recipes prepared with easy to source ingredients and readily available produce. Where possible, I’ve suggested substitutions to make your cooking efforts as inexpensive and stress free as possible. And although we are not a strictly vegetarian family, we do believe in eating and cooking with ecological sustainability in mind, so two of the three recipes shared here are vegan and the third one is vegetarian. In talking about cooking and enjoying food, we need to be mindful that so many of our fellow country folk have lost their livelihoods. I encourage those of us who are able to donate, to support the wonderful work of the charitable organisations listed below.
Grow your greens
Hope you are all keeping safe in these uncertain times. Though the temptation to eat junk is hard to resist when cooped up at home, I’ve been trying some healthy recipes that aren’t short on flavour. Anything to boost that immune system, am I right? For me, the best part of cooking healthy during the lockdown has been the experience of sourcing the ingredients directly from my own little vegetable patch. This is my first experience with growing and it has brought me immense pleasure. I’ve literally witnessed cherry tomatoes ripening on the vine and will forever cherish the memory of my kids plucking the first few juicy, little ones, popping them straight into their mouths. I can’t overstate the joy of picking the fresh herbs straight from the patch to throw into sauces and soups; it makes everything so much more fragrant and delicious. So if you haven’t tried it before, go ahead and do so now. Buy those seeds from your local nursery and plant them in pots or kayaris in your backyard. It’s really much easier than you think and for lots of produce, the yield (even from little pots) is ample for a family of four. Until the flourishing of your own little patch though, source from your trusty vegetable vendor and grocer. As palates become more adventurous so do they, carrying a much wider variety of produce than they did even until a few years ago.
1- Celery Soup
Though under rated for its mild flavour, the nutritional benefits of celery cannot be overlooked. This recipe is vegan friendly so instead of dairy, relies on cashews to lend the soup a seriously creamy texture. Big fistfuls of fresh parsley and dill amp up the flavour quotient. This recipe will make you 5 or so hearty, big bowls.
2 tbsps olive oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ kg celery stalks, cut into very thin strips
2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into rounds
5 cups water (or sub with vegetable stock if you have handy)
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
½ tsp cayenne powder
½ cup parsley
¼ cup fresh chopped dill (can be subbed with extra parsley)
½ cup raw cashews (you can use roasted ones in a pinch but hold back on the salt until after blending ingredients together)
2 tbsp canola oil
8/10 celery leaves
2 tbsps nigella seeds (also known as kalonji)
Heat the oil in a big pot over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and fry until lightly golden, stirring occasionally. Throw in the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the celery, potatoes, bay leaf and roast in the pot for 5 mins, stirring continuously. Pour in the water (or stock, if you have it). There should be enough in the pot to just cover the veggies. Add the cashews now, as they will soften while the soup cooks. Cover and bring to a boil, then turn down the flame and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender. Add the fresh herbs right at the end and turn off the heat. The next step is to blend the soup until it is smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender (the kind that’s shaped like a stick) you can use a regular blender but be sure to hold down the lid and not over fill it (to avoid soup splattering all over your kitchen walls). Return to pot and heat up gently. Remember to balance the seasoning at this point, even a final touch of salt can make a big difference to the finished product.
For the garnish, heat up the canola oil in a frying pan. When it is very hot add the celery leaves and fry until the colour turns dark and they crinkle up a bit. It shouldn’t take more then a couple of minutes. The water in the leaves will sputter in the hot oil so be careful! Remove the leaves and roast the nigella seeds in the oil for a minute. I found a small sized strainer (the kind we use with tea) to be quite useful in getting the little seeds out of the oil.
This soup should be served in a wide, open-mouthed bowl because you’ll want to use the surface to create a pretty pattern on one side with the leaves and nigella seeds. The seeds really add to the flavour so garnish each bowl with at least a half tsp of them. Enjoy with or without a side of crusty, buttered bread.
(Adapted from feastingathome.com)
Remembering old-school teatime
Back in the 80s when I was a little kid, teatime seemed to hold great significance for all the grown-ups around me. A trolley would be wheeled out, laden with fried goodies, sandwiches, biscuits, and always some variety of teacake from a local bakery. Elderly family members would emerge from their afternoon naps and errant children would be dragged in from their garden shenanigans. It was the time of day when families received visitors: a revolving cast of characters drawn from relatives, cousins, friends and acquaintances. People seem to have much less time for this cosy ritual. But during this lockdown, when our streets are quiet, our sky blue and the days endless, I’m reminded of the sleepy Lahore of my childhood, and of teatime in the old family living room, amongst the familiar chatter of cousins and relatives. So this next recipe, of one of my favourite teacakes, is in celebration of that very special time.
2- Banana Bundt Cake
This rich and incredibly moist treat pairs equally well with your evening tea or coffee and will use up those over-ripe bananas languishing in your fruit basket. I added chocolate chips on my daughter’s insistence but purists may prefer to leave them out.
3 cups flour
2 tsps baking soda
1 cup softened butter (or ¾ cup vegetable oil)
1 2/3 cup sugar
2 tsps vanilla extract
2 large eggs
Just under 2 cups mashed very ripe bananas
1 cup cream
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ cup chocolate chips (optional)
And for the (also optional) brown sugar glaze…
¼ cup butter (cubed)
½ cup brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
¼ tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup powdered sugar (easy to make with regular sugar at home)
¼ cup chopped toasted walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 175C. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl and set aside. With a (electric) hand mixer beat the butter until it is creamy. Add sugar and beat for another minute, scraping down the sides. Add vanilla essence and mix the eggs in one at a time. Add in the mashed bananas. Prep sour cream by adding lemon juice to the cream and set aside for a few minutes. Add half the flour mix and then the sour cream, followed by the remaining flour. Mix well. Fold in the chocolate chips (if using). Thoroughly grease a 10-inch bundt pan and pour in the batter (make your own DIY bundt pan with a round 10-inch cake pan, placing a ramekin in the centre, just be sure to thoroughly grease the outside of the ramekin so the batter doesn’t stick to it.) Leftover mixture can be baked in a cupcake pan or individual ramekins. Bake for about an hour, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Loosely cover the top with foil when it starts to darken (at about 25 mins). Unmold cake only when it has cooled completely.
This cake is delicious as is and stands on its own without the brown sugar glaze. But if you have the time and patience to make it, the glaze does look quite beautiful and lends the cake a more impressive look. Combine the butter, brown sugar and milk in a small saucepan and simmer gently whilst whisking. Add vanilla essence and powdered sugar ¼ cup at a time until you achieve a thick, pouring consistency. Pour on to cooled banana cake and quickly throw on the roasted nuts. They will stick to the warm glaze as it cools.
Serve with a big mug of coffee or chai.
(Adapted from celebratingsweets.com)
In praise of the cold lunch
Week four of the lockdown and the days are definitely warmer. We are not yet in the throes of the dry heat of early summer but appetites have dulled for sure and thirst levels have gone up. Pablo (our playful and rascally lab), who normally bounces around the garden, keen to play catch and chase after squirrels, now lies meekly in a shady spot awaiting his afternoon pick-me-up of cold, sugary lassi. Even the birds, buoyant in the smoke and haze free skies of the lockdown, now swoop down thirstily around the makeshift birdbath balancing precariously on the boundary wall of our garden. This is the time of year when suddenly we no longer crave steaming, hot food and instead tall glasses of water and big dollops of cool yogurt with lunch become crucial additions to the daily routine. Right about now, a cold lunch really, really hits the spot. Aloo channa chaat, dahi baray and salad nicoise are some of my very favourite summer meals. But at the very top of this list are Arabic mezze: blended concoctions with incredible depth of flavour and texture that, paired with freshly baked pita, make for a seriously satisfying summer meal.
3- Pita Bread & Hummus
There is absolutely nothing wrong with store-bought pita. When lightly crisped in a toaster, it proves a solid accompaniment to your favourite dips and mezze. But once you’ve tried this simple, homemade version, the store-bought one just won’t stack up.
2 tsps active dry yeast
½ tsp sugar
¼ cup whole-wheat flour (or chakki ka ata)
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsps olive oil
In a large mixing bowl add 1 cup of lukewarm water, yeast and sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add whole-wheat flour and ¼ cup of the all purpose flour and whisk together. Leave the bowl in a warm place, away from direct heat, until the mixture is frothy and bubbling. This should take about 10 to 15 mins. Set aside ½ cup of the flour (for dusting and kneading) and add the rest along with the salt and olive oil to the frothing yeast mixture. Stir to form a shaggy dough. Dust with a little of the reserved flour, knead lightly and bring dough bits together. Take the dough out of the bowl and on a lightly floured surface knead it gently until smooth. Cover and leave to rest for about 10 mins and then knead again for a few mins. Use the gentlest touch and only the minimum amount of reserved flour. We are looking for soft, slightly moist dough. Form dough into a ball and place in a large, clean mixing bowl. Wrap with plastic and cover with a towel. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size. In our current warmer temperatures this should take about 45 mins.
Preheat your oven to 250c and place a heavy baking tray on the lowest rack. Punch down your dough and divide into 8 roughly equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball, cover with a damp towel and leave to rest for 10 mins. One by one, roll the dough out into little rotis about 7/8 inches in diameter and just over a quarter cm thick. Very quickly open the door of your oven and place the pita onto the hot baking tray. The pita will start to puff up. After about 2 mins, open the door and flip it over and bake for another minute. Remove from oven and place in a basket with a napkin on top (to keep pita soft and warm). For best results, remember to give the oven a minute or two to heat up in between baking the pitas and try not to open the oven door for more than a second or two. Serve pita fresh or reheat in a hot oven for a minute before serving.
(Adapted from the New York Times)
How to make Hummus
Everyone makes their own version of this tasty and simple Middle Eastern staple. I like mine super creamy and smooth with a dash of crushed red chilli on top for that little kick of heat.
1 cup dried chickpeas
½ tsp baking soda
Juice of 3 lemons
1 large clove garlic
½ cup tahini (there are loads of good recipes online for homemade tahini should you need to make your own)
½ tsp cumin powder
¼ cup ice water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
and for the garnish…
a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, paprika or crushed red chilli and a few cooked chickpeas
Soak the chickpeas in water overnight to soften. Add to a pot with baking soda and boil for up to two hours or until the chickpeas can be easily squished between two fingers. Not completely mushy but definitely overcooked. This is the key to achieving a smooth and creamy texture. Even slightly undercooked chickpeas can result in graininess, which in my opinion ruins the experience of hummus. Next, peel the chickpeas. The skin should come away easily when you squish it between your fingers. Though a fiddly and annoying process, removing the skin helps us achieve that smooth texture we are after.
In a food processor (or high powered blender) add the garlic, lemon juice and salt and process until the garlic is very finely chopped. Leave for 10 minutes to mellow the sharp bite of the garlic. Add the tahini and with the food processor running, add ice water and process until the tahini mixture is pale and creamy (remember to scrape down the sides in between). Next, add the chickpeas (keeping a few aside to garnish the hummus) and ground cumin and blend for a few minutes. Add in the olive oil and continue processing until the mixture looks completely smooth. Assess the texture of your hummus and if its still pasty, add another tablespoon or two of ice water at this stage and process for another few minutes until fluffy and creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a plate or shallow bowl and spread with the back of a spoon to create a textured top. Garnish with a generous drizzle of olive oil, paprika (or crushed red chilli) and the reserved chickpeas.
Serve with warm pita and a fresh, crisp salad.