The Spiceman Cometh

A few weeks ago I mentioned a truly squeal-y moment. Well I can now reveal the details. My apologies to Wlx who did an awesome job of the card below. It’s been stuck on my fridge for me to admire and got a bit worn in the process.

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Probably the best leaving present that I have ever had – a one to one session with one of The Spicemen…. Mr T Singh himself.

There were quite a few mails back and forth trying to agree on what to cook and when.

When: I so wanted to wait until we had a new kitchen. But that would have been too far into the future (end April). Then I read that he isn’t allowed into his wife’s kitchen as he’s too messy so my mind was made up to get him in sooner. We were hoping he would come on a Friday afternoon when kiddo was at home. We agreed on a Friday but it had to be the morning (later found out he was off to take part in Saturday Kitchen’s 400th episode so he’s allowed to set terms!)

Cuisine: Tony has over 20 years experience as a chef doing all sorts of cuisines and though I would have absolutely loved a session in either chocolate work or pastry making, in the end I decided (lying here….hubby told me!) that it had to be Scottish Punjabi food. Before agreeing on the menu, I searched through the SpiceMen cookbook and also downloaded his latest book Tasty on the kindle to get some idea of what types of dishes interested me. Just a side note, never get a cookbook on Kindle, it’s just not the same as thumbing through a physical one and propping it up in the kitchen when cooking.

The final agreed menu:

Falafels

and Satan’s Ketchup

Stuffed Pratha

Wild Mushroom
Samosa`s

Dhal

( Curried yellow lentils)

Herbed Rice

Mint and Coriander Sauce

I had two weeks between leaving the job and my next one. The session took place on the last Friday. During those weeks, I spent a LOT of time tidying. Lots of moving stuff about. Doing my shoulder in moving shelf units about and realising that I have a lot of cookbooks. Partly to get ready for the kitchen refit, and partly because I didn’t want any spec of dust to be visible. Two weeks later the bloody laundry baskets were still not empty – rather like Terry Prachett’s The Luggage they just keep spewing out laundry. So they were chucked out of view.

A few days beforehand I took out my food processor – it’s part of a huge kitchen aid that Mr Plummy bought for my birthday last year. I only ever use the cake making part and didn’t even know there was a food processor bit until I was in the midst of the mad clearout. Whooo hoo. That was washed, instructions read and I was set!

The day before I went shopping for the ingredients list Mr Singh had sent me. Strangely there were not many spices but lots and lots of herbs. Four supermarkets later I was devastated that there were no wild mushrooms available anywhere in Livingston. But a quick email and he confirmed a substitute was fine.  I also bought a new chef’s knife and whilst practicing at home managed to slice off of a bit of my finger nail, painfully. So that was hidden away on a high shelf away for kiddo’s little fingers. I got Mr Plummy to sharpen up a selection of the knives that I use more regularly.

Friday 20th March was the day of the solar eclipse. Diverted my attention for all of an hour (clouds got in the way of my pinhole camera working hey ho). Then, I got ready by getting out equipment and ingredients. Note the total lack of space now! Limes… I’ve never used limes in Indian cooking so this was going to be interesting. As were the herbs (am getting obsessive innit)

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Then bang on time (which is very un-desi like), a Range Rover drove up and I had an uncontrollable fit of giggles. He was here, red turban, red shoes and ladybird earrings. I opened the door, then closed it in his face saying I had to get rid of the giggles. He came in with a crate.

In the kitchen he asked for a surface so I had to creep into the laundry filled conservatory and drag out a table. And what came out of the crate was this. SPICES. No wonder he didn’t list any in the shopping. He had them all. I was just sticking my nose in everything.

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Now some of these I have already. But it’s the ones that I don’t that I want! Garam masala is a prime example – Gujaratis don’t tend to use it much. His was delicious as it contained star anise giving it a slightly liquorice scent. And there was the curious pink pot which I later learnt contained asafoetida crystals –  I had no idea that asafoetida was resin extracted from a number of plants. The powder I have in my kitchen is the crushed up form of the crystals.

See the roll of knives. Yes, chefy types really do sharpen their knives –

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I had pen and paper ready to take notes but was told not to worry about recipes as he had copies for me. I should have read them before we started so I would have an idea of what we were going to make. But I just too excited and had so many questions to ask so we just got stuck into the prep. I wish I had taken notes but the next 3 hours were spent talking a lot. It was a golden opportunity chance to ask about working in the restaurant business, to find out what it was like to get work after he finished his catering studies (shortsighted restaurant people saw the turban and turned him away, the fools!), why so many Indian restaurants close in Edinburgh, about charities in Edinburgh and lots of questions about a Punjabi boy growing up in Scotland. We talked about family, about Punjab Junction (in Leith and run by his aunt, where his mum can be found) the recipes his female relatives won’t teach him as he’s a man! Lots of chatter about the healthy eating courses I teach and the cooking he does with communities/charities.  Some chat on diabetes (its high in Asian populations) and also the new rules on allergen labelling in restaurants. And all the while a lot of washing, peeling and chopping.

We chopped (OK mostly he did the work as I was too busy chatting) as the first lesson was about prepping ingredients all beforehand. There was a lot and in reality, probably too much for my little family. But he gave me tips on how to cover the garlic, ginger and chillies in freezer boxes then cover with oil. The oil preserves the ingredients, and as an added bonus infuses so you can use the oil itself in cooking for flavour.

Or to freeze them in ice cubes. I’ve frozen garlic/ginger before but never chopped chillies. It’s all about having things ready so that when you cook, you can just chuck things into the pot.

So here’s what was chopped:

A bag of white onions. At this point, I got a lesson in how to chop properly. First I had to use the correct knife. Out came the finger tip chopper. Then I was shown how to hold my left hand which holds the item to be chopped (think about how club scout salute!) but my hand didn’t like that so I was told to keep my thumb and pinky out of the way and then look at the shape of the blade which is designed to chop in a rocking motion. The tip should always remain on the board and I should use the heel of the blade to cut, not the top end near the blade as I’ve always done. I then got on with cutting the onions. And slicing off a tiny bit of my thumb. What a dummy! Blood started to seep out. Here’s the next tip – have the spray on plaster stuff in your cookbag or even superglue 3. I suspected he was taking the mick but he insisted that  it was used by the Americans in Vietnam to bind wounds temporarily whilst soldiers were taken to hospital. (Turns out there is some truth in this according to Wikipedia…!!!)

3 red onions – sliced ready for pickled onions.

Garlic: About 7 bulbs of which each individual clove was peeled by him

Ginger – I was doing my usual of scraping the skin when he told me to slice it off and freeze it to use in smoothies, or in ginger/lemon tea.  I’m looking forward to using that.

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Chillies – 150 grams worth!!!!! That’s a lot of chillies.  I was instructed to wash these and pull the stalks off.

To avoid washing the processor he advised that I should whiz up the ginger first, scrape it out then put that in to a freezer box, next do the garlic (scrap and store) and finally the chillies.

Herbs – coriander, parsley and mint. These were washed and I spun them in my salad spinner to drain off the water. He pulled the leaves of the mint off. I also had tarragon but this was not washed just taken out of the bags and then I pulled the leaves off.

Mint and coriander sauce:

My wee processor was not up to the task of making the sauce so he dashed to his car and got his supermixer. I would love to have this but I bet it costs a bomb. In went the mint, coriander, some of the whizzed up garlic, ginger and chilies, sugar, salt and vinegar. It was whizzed up to a runny paste and is happily sitting in my fridge now.

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Pickled onions: The sliced red onions were put into a large bowl, then we added the juice of 2 limes, distilled vinegar, chilli flakes, anar dana and salt. Now anar dana is a new ingredient for me – it’s the powder made from dried pomegranate seeds. It’s really tangy but sweet too which surprised me as pomegranates are never sour but are sweet. In the Tasty book, the recipe uses pomegranate molasses but he said the powder is a good substitute. OMG this mix was just delicious – we were all eating it straight out of the bowl. But the recipe says you should mix it, bottle it and wait at least 3 hours. Again in the book, it says wait a week. No way they are going to last a week – I’ve already had them with lunch and again at dinner that night, in sandwiches, as the base of mash and just as a sneaky snack.

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Dhal:

This was very different from the dhals I cook. For one, there was no ginger or garlic in it. Instead, he used asafoetida – which led to a chat about jains and swaminaryan bods who don’t use food taken from the ground (and hence no onions, garlic or ginger). So the dhals were boiled in water – he grabbed a mix fo dhals from my shelves including red lentils, yellow split dhal (which I never used before) and chana dhal (which I use in some curries but never as a dhal). These were boiled in plenty of water. After that he added in salt and tumeric and half a tin of chopped tomatoes. Once the dhal was soft, he added a tarka which was made by melting about 100g unsalted butter (eeek see my cholesterol levels go up) to nutty point then adding cumin seeds, chilli powder and about 2 tablepoons of asafoetida (which for me is a huge amount, I normally just use a small pinch). The recipe he gave me included ginger and garlic paste but I’m pretty sure he didn’t put any in on the day. This is mixed into the soft dhal and he usually finishes it off with more butter. But I had to insist that this was left off. There was no chili in this as I wanted my daughter to try it. It was the only way we could get her to eat it and truth be told – the dhal didn’t need it. It was simply delicious.

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At this point we were already 2 hours into the session and some of the food still had to be cooked. The kiddo and hubby were due and there was nothing for them to eat. There was only an hour left and so we made an executive decision that he would spend the remaining time cooking falafels and showing me how to make prathas. And whilst he wasn’t watching the clock, he did have a plane to catch to London later and I didn’t want to keep him too long. As we had cut up the ingredients, I was confident I could make the samosas and herbed rice myself later.

Falafels:

I had soaked the chickpeas the day before – he drained these and then whizzed them in the processor. Then in went some of the prepped garlic, parsley leaves, tarragon leaves, coriander leaves, baking soda, salt, pepper, cumin powder, ground coriander, ground cardamom and the juice and zest of a lemon. The herbs made the mixture beautifully green and fragrant.  Usually the recipe has chillies but I wanted to make them less spicy so I think he just put in a bit of chilli powder. OK as I was chopping bits of myself off, and talking, I didn’t see exactly what he was sticking into the food processor but I’ve got the recipe so should be able to replicate it all. The mixture was runny so we added gram (chickpea) flour to thicken it slightly. Unfortunately, once whizzed it was apparent the chickpeas hadn’t soaked enough as they were still grainy. This was really disheartening as they had been soaking for over 12 hours. Next time, I will do it for longer.

Just in time, hubby and kiddo came home and to my amazement, she wanted to help so he set her to getting the falafel balls ready for frying. I got another tip here which is to make sure that when putting the falafels in, I should not just drop them in but kind of glide them in so I don’t burn. We used rapeseed oil – another new ingredient which I have never used. On the rare occasions I fry food, I use either groundnut or sunflower oil. The latter usually leaves a strong frying smell in the house which is one of the reasons I don’t like frying food (and yes, the other is health, I would much rather use the oven). However, the rapeseed oil didn’t leave that strong smell around the house. So I may use that going forward though it is relatively more expensive (I got two bottles rather cheaply from Costco for this session)

BTW, Check out the white stripe in my hair …bride of Frankenstein!

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Prathas:

I love parathas (the way we pronouce it in our house). My mum used to make wonder stuffed ones -sometimes with spicy potato mixtures, other times with a very sweetened dhal. She also used to make simple ones fried in ghee (clarified butter) but I didn’t pay attention and never learnt off her. So fast forward 35 years and a Punjabi Scot showed a London raised Guju woman and her little kiddo how to make them. The little one was very cute as we got out her mini rolling board and pin. And he was very good about teaching us both – he’s a brilliant teacher and very patient. I can see why he is asked to go into schools to teach kids and he is very easy going but inspiring.

The first set were stuffed with the potato mixture which contained crushed boiled potatoes (not mashed, had some lumps in for texture), red onion, coriander powder, cumin powder, chili powder, salt and chopped up coriander and a bit of tarragon again. The recipe includes chopped chillies but as I wanted kiddo to eat them, we left those out. However, in the future, I will divide the mix and add chillies to the ones for hubby and me.

Another tip – prep dough to use for 3 days. I was aghast at this as I always make my dough fresh but he said that it’s fine to prep before and keep the dough in the fridge. Another time saver tip.

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And even though he was short of time, he showed us how to make a sweet paratha using jaggery and ghee which are laid onto one end of the rolled out circle, the the circle is rolled up. The roll is then made into a spiral and rolled out flat. He said that we could make layers and layers but healthy mamma said no, thats fine. In the pan, I dry cooked a side until brown spots appeared and then flipped over and brushed on ghee (oil on the potato stuffed ones). Once one side is cooked, repeat on the other. Both versions were just lovely and the little one enjoyed making them. In truth, I still need more practice before I get them perfect but at least I have a better idea of what to do now.

Mushrooms: Here’s our Tony cooking down the mushrooms. I had a mix of mini portabella mushrooms (wiped and sliced, stalks and all), shitake (wiped, stalks discarded as they are quite rubbery and chopped) and oyster (no wiping needed, all chopped). He cooked off onions in a bit of oil in the pan, then in went the mushrooms and herbs. Tarragon – wowser wonderful. The mushrooms were meant to be for the samosas but over the next few days hubby had them with sausages, I had them on toast and then also stirred through pasta. I am totally converted to tarragon – an aniseed type flavour that just tastes delicious.

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Through out all the cooking, he had me taste the mixes to make sure seasoning was right. I have to admit this is not something I always do, especially when I’m in a hurry and I know that I should.  I don’t think I always got it right as in retrospect, both the parathas and mushrooms needed more salt.

That evening, I made more parathas, falafels and also the herbed rice which even the kiddo ate together with the amazing dhal. I probably wouldn’t haven’t the herbed rice with all my dishes, but I can see it being a great base for the falafels, or for a lunch or just as a quick snack. I didn’t make the samosas as we had so much food to eat that we would have ended wasting them. I did however, mix up a small amount of satan’s ketchup to have with the falafels the following night for dinner – and let me tell you, it’s another keeper. Wonderful blend of tomatoes and spice that complemented the falafels well.

And here’s us at the end. Smiles all round.  I look demented – I don’t photograph at all well which is why I rarely show myself on this site and to make it worse, I was KNACKERED – it was a lot of work but man, what a superb morning.

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And the bonus, at some point once the kitchen is back he’ll be back to get a master class off me on how to make pickles. And I cannot wait as I’m sure by then I will be a master chopper and a much better kitchen helper.

P.S. it’s true the man is very messy. I took the rest of the day to clean up the mess!!!!!! Next time, I’m gonna make sure he knows where the mop is. 😉

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