Monday, 31 January 2011

The Scent Of Cardamom

 It's been about two weeks since I returned from a truly amazing trip to India with K. After being assailed at every turn by sights, sounds, colours, the warmth of the people, the vibrancy of the food, the chaotic traffic, the wealth and the abject poverty - in short, the full force of life played out right before your very eyes - it was an utter contrast to return to the relative calm and greyness of London in January. Throwing open my suitcase the next morning, I was immediately hit by the heady floral aroma of cardamom wafting out to greet me. As cliched as it sounds, I was immediately transported back to India.

I've always liked the taste of cardamom, but more often than not, it's just something I throw in a pilaf to flavour the rice. In India, however, it's in everything. From our very first morning to our last, cardamom accompanied us like a faithful friend on our trip through the teaming streets of Mumbai and then down south to the lush coolness of Kerala. It started when, to ease us out of our jetlag, our dear friends Kamal & Reva (K's cousins & his wife) made us steaming cups of milky chai infused with freshly ground cardamom, holi (basil) and plenty of sugar - it worked a treat, but I would come to crave it every single morning.

After one particularly hot morning pounding the streets of south Bombay, we headed for a late lunch at the Britannia cafe - one of the last remaining 'Irani cafes' in Bombay. Stepping into the shady coolness of the cafe whose interior hadn't changed for over eight deacdes we were warmly greeted by the 88 year-old owner Boman Kohinoor, who suggested the house specials: Iranian berry pulao (a secret recipe), "two cold lime sodas to cut the Bombay heat" and, to finish, caramel custard. The generous plates of pilaf arrived quickly, speckled with Iranian berries, which looked and tasted like tiny cranberries, and cashew nuts. The basmati rice was strongly fragrant with cardamom and had a hint of cinnamon and cloves. I wolfed it down.

Another afternoon, Kamal kindly surprised me by bringing back some ras malai, a well known dessert of milk dumplings, from Tewari Bros, a local sweet shop famed for the dessert. The dumplings were delicately floating with pistachios in a sweetened milk flavoured with saffron and cardamom and served warm. Everyone laughed as I embarrassed myself by groaning after every spoonful but quite frankly I didn't care - it was divine.

Then down south to Kerala, where cardamom, which is native to the hilly Western Ghats, is known as the "queen of spices". We stayed at Camelia Haven in a wooden cottage set in the verdant greenery of a misty cardamom plantation. For dinner we had an aromatic vegetable curry flavoured with cardamom followed by several games of ping pong before bed.

The next day, we drove through endless banks of tea bushes to take an elephant ride, made a quick pit stop for a creamy pistachio and cardamom kulfi, and then went on to an ayurvedic spice garden where we learned about the the holistic uses for a wealth of different spices. I especially loved the on-site hives where the bees would feed on flowering cardamom bushes and the honeycombs harvested by spinning them in a metal bucket with a turn-handle. The honey is extracted by centrifugal force - leaving the honeycomb intact and the resulting honey deliciously scented with cardamom. It was here that I bought generous bundles of sweet vanilla pods and a large bag of cardamom for a couple of quid (which I later stashed in my suitcase) - the smell was so vibrant and the hue a vivid green so unlike the slightly anaemic specimens gracing my spice shelf at home.

Our last day in Kerala was spent floating idyllically down the backwaters of Alleppy on our very own houseboat. Moored for the night by an expanse of paddy fields, we were cooked an amazing meal of chargrilled peppered king prawns and several vegetable dishes consisting of potato, aubergine and greens - all simply cooked but again all flavoured with cardamom. To end the meal we were offered a couple of fresh cardamom pods to chew to help sweeten the breath and aid digestion.

So you'd think I'd be over cardamom by now or at least need a lengthy break from it - but actually I'm missing it. Last week I felt really cold - the sort of cold which chills you right to the bone. I needed something milky and comforting and then I thought of kheer - a soothing Indian rice pudding infused with cardamom and rosewater. It's traditionally served chilled as a dessert but at this time of year I prefer eating it warm - in fact I had it for breakfast at the crack of dawn yesterday before teaching an early morning yoga class and it was the perfect start to my day.


Serves 3-4
  • 3 tablespoons of basmati rice
  • 600 ml full fat milk
  • 3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
  • 1/2 - 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • A generous tablespoon of rosewater (trust me it really makes a difference)
  • Optional: chopped pistachios

Soak the rice in enough cold water to cover it for at least half an hour, then drain in a sieve. This helps to soften the rice so it cooks down nicely.

Warm the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and then add the rice and cardamom. Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to a very low simmer for 30 minutes. Stir every couple of minutes to prevent the rice from sticking.

When ready remove from the heat and fish out the cardamom pods. Add the sugar according to taste and then stir in the rosewater.

Eat warm or leave to cool and then chill in the fridge for an hour or two before eating. If you wish sprinkle with chopped pistachios.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Organic Fruit & Veg Boxes

When we moved to a house with a garden at the end of last summer, I decided I would embrace country (OK zone 2) living and grow my own vegetables. But so far the spot earmarked for my vegetable garden contains nothing more exciting than a few blades of grass and the occasional coke can that's been chucked over the wall. In my defence it has been winter and I was working hideously long hours until recently, but there's also the reality that it's a lot of hard work. So, as a stop-gap alternative to complete self-sufficiency I have started having organic fruit and veg boxes delivered.

I was unsure which company to go for and liked the idea of going for a small local producer, but after quite a big of research I opted for Abel & Cole. The thing I really liked about their scheme is that, each week, you have a lot of control over the contents of your box. That can be really useful if there are certain foods you don't get on with - citrus fruits are sadly not my friends - but it's also handy to be able to skip, for instance, tomatoes if you haven't managed to use up all of the previous week's supply.

Like most of the other organic box companies, Abel & Cole will also deliver other items, from organic dairy produce - I'm loving a regular supply of milk and eggs  - to cleaning products. You can have any of these items as one-offs or as part of your regular weekly delivery.

I think perhaps the biggest surprise has been just how many new and interesting vegetables I've been receiving. They tend to mix it up so that you don't get the same thing each week which means you don't get stuck in a cooking rut. My friend told me how her organic box delivery had totally revitalised her love of cooking and I can really see what she means. Despite having been a vegetarian for fifteen or so years, for the last few weeks I've been cooking with ingredients I rarely, if ever, bought.

So, beetroots became a really delicious Borscht (even Coffee Boy loved it and he is not usually a fan of soup for dinner); turnips coupled up with potatoes to make a tasty mash to accompany a homemade pie; parsnips (usually reserved for Christmas) were roasted with olive oil and maple syrup to accompany a homemade tomato and mozzarella tart. And I haven't even begun to think about what I will do with this week's black salsify and jerusalem artichokes! It really has been fun trying veg that I previously would never have bought; it's amazing how habitual your cooking can become - and for me it's good to be forced to move away from my usual Mediterranean vegetables.

If you haven't tried having an organic box before I can heartily recommend it. The only catch is that you'll need to be at home on delivery day, or have somewhere safe for the delivery person to leave it. But if you can make that work I've found it interesting, fun and surprisingly cheap to completely shake up my cooking. And if you do already do it, I'd love to hear about some of your favourite root-vegetable recipes!

All images Abel & Cole

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Tausche Bags

Like many of us I love bags. But not for me the hefty price tag of the latest It Bag; I prefer something attractive, reasonably priced and above all practical. I really can't get on with bags I have to carry in my hand or hook over my arm: I like something I can wear on my shoulder and preferably across the body. I know I'm boringly practical but I like a bag that allows me to use both my arms and that can be, if necessary, slung on whilst I'm on my bike.

The ideal for me then, often presents itself in the form of a messenger-style bag and luckily (given I spend a fair amount of time there) Germany is the mecca of the funky messenger bag. One company that I particularly love is Tausche. Each tarp bag you buy comes with two flaps of your choice that can be swapped at will; and better still other flaps are available to purchase on their own. This means that you can look like you've got a different bag on every day when in fact you have just the one.

The flaps attach with a chunky zip that allows no possibility for accidental detaching - in fact, the bags as a whole are very well made: I've had my bag for about 3 years now and it is still going strong. I've amassed five different flaps now - from a silhouette of the owner's dog (see above), to a lightly sequined and embroidered olive green one - and they are all still in fantastic condition too. (I should point out here that the flaps actually look much nicer in the flesh than they do online so if you happen to be in Berlin, Cologne or Stuttgart, pop along to the shops and have a look). The great thing is that when the actual bag does give up the ghost, I can buy a new one and still use all of the flaps I currently have. If that doesn't make for a fantastic price-per-wear statistic I don't know what does!

Just to make things even better, the company give you a loyalty card on which you can place the sticker you get each time you buy a flap. When you reach five you get a free one - and given that you get two when you buy the bag in the first place that means you can buy a mere three flaps and you're looking at a complete freebie!

The bags come in various sizes from little handbags (also suitable for children) to large messengers or backpacks, but they also do more boxy types with various inserts that allow you to transform them into camera bags or baby changing bags.  I've just noticed that they've also started to do a leather version that looks like it might need some further investigation... I really love these bags: practical, attractive and, I think very German. I always knew there was I reason I like to hang out there.

All images Tausche
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