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Archive for March, 2010

At Villa 39, the new Italian restaurant that opened this week in Colaba, the interiors are strikingly different from any other Bombay restaurant that I’ve been to. Everything is white, from the walls, seating, and grand carved mirror frames to the fresh flower arrangement spread on the ledge behind our table. Wooden pillars, painted silver, a glittering chandelier and silver cushions on the bench seating add a touch of Indian bling, and the overall effect is of entering an urbane traveler’s luxurious Bombay home.

The menu does its best to emulate the atmosphere, offering specialties like burrata, an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, and a gnochhi with sundried tomato in a Gorgonzola cream sauce. But while painstaking detail was paid to the decor, it is obvious that such lavish attention wasn’t applied to the food.

Indian food relies heavily on spices for flavor; Italian food, on the other hand, is more about the simple but immaculate preparation of excellent ingredients. We ordered a Caprese salad, the Italian standard of tomato, mozzarella and basil, but at Villa 39, the tomato was watery, lacking the sweet tartness to offset the milky mozzarella, and the pesto that topped the dish instead of the basil barely tasted green. The Insalata de Villa, a salad composed of rocket lettuce, iceberg, walnuts, apples, prunes and shavings of pecorino in a tangy mustard dressing, had the elements down but the lettuce was limp. Lifeless lettuce takes the enjoyment out of any salad, and I found myself craving Moshe’s uncomplicated, but unfailingly fresh pear and rocket salad. Another salad of paper thin slices of beet and Gorgonzola with rocket was flecked with soft pine nuts which we couldn’t help but notice tasted stale. The mushroom appetizer, bound by melted cheese, was unremarkable, and the creamy Burrata was unfortunately out of stock.

I ordered the Eggplant Parmesan next and had a difficult time discerning the taste of the tomato sauce from the overwhelming amount of melted cheese- which didn’t taste like Parmesan- that smothered my dish. The gnocchi with sundried tomato in Gorgonzola cream sauce that Hrishikesh ordered was more like gnocchi swimming in bland cream with a few sprinkles of Gorgonzola. However, my mother-in-law’s roasted vegetables- red and yellow peppers, asparagus and broccoli- were juicy and well seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. And my father-in-law’s Mama Rosa, a penne in sundried tomato cream sauce, was equally tasty, even if it didn’t sound as sophisticated as some of the other items on the menu.

The tiramisu was fluffy and delicious; I thought it was one of the best I’ve had in the city. My sister-in-law said that the chocolate fondant cake with its runny chocolate interior didn’t compare to the Lindt fondant cake at Corleone, another Italian restaurant in south Bombay. And the chocolate ice cream we ordered was dark but syrupy, nothing like Trattoria’s excellent bitter chocolate ice cream.

Our service was slow, but that’s probably just a new restaurant working out its kinks. Villa 39 has the distinction of being South Bombay’s only standalone Italian restaurant (as in, not housed in a hotel or a mall) and it has some basics down. However, if Villa 39 wants its food to live up to the cosmopolitan aspirations of its decor, the kitchen needs to ensure fresh ingredients and be more attentive when preparing the meals.

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In this week’s Minimalist Column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman writes about yogurt cheese, or, in other words, strained yogurt. Strained yogurt! I started straining yogurt once I moved to Bombay because sour cream and Greek yogurt were difficult to find. We (and many families in India) make yogurt , or dahi, every morning with leftover milk and yogurt culture. With so much yogurt in our house I realized that using the strained, thick version of it is a wonderfully healthy way to incorporate the creamy taste of sour cream or mayonnaise without the additional calories and fat. After making it a few times, I also realized how much easier it was to let yogurt drip in my kitchen for a few hours than to brave the Bombay traffic for a trip to the grocery store to hunt for a product, like sour cream, that it probably didn’t carry.

We strain yogurt at least once a week for our recipes- I use it as a substitute for mayonnaise for coleslaw dressings; as a substitute for sour cream; in my beet tzatziki and eggplant tzatziki, and to make a creamy chipotle mayonnaise for Mexican food. Strained yogurt is also the main ingredient for Shrikhand, one of my favorite Indian desserts, a spiced saffron yogurt. It’s also delicious eaten plain, or with a drizzle of honey, or with some fruits.

strained yogurt, or "yogurt cheese"

Mark provided a recipe for an eggplant dip using strained yogurt which was similar to my eggplant tzatziki recipe– the difference being that he mashed the roasted eggplant and mixed it with the strained yogurt, while I kept my roasted cubes of eggplant whole, and gently folded them into a mixture of the strained yogurt, lemon juice, garlic and dill for a thick and creamy eggplant salad.

To make Sour Cream from Strained Yogurt:

1. Tie up yogurt in a thin cloth (you could use a cheesecloth but we just use a cloth that has the woven density and thickness of a handkerchief) and suspend it somewhere. We tie the yogurt in a ball in the middle of the cloth and then tie the other ends of the cloth to a cabinet handle. Place a bowl underneath the suspended yogurt to catch the water, which you can freeze for later use.

2. After a couple of hours, untie the cloth and empty out the now thicker yogurt into a bowl. Add a few squeezes of lime or lemon juice and viola- a healthy sour cream that I’ve used in baking recipes and for Mexican meals.

To make Chipotle Mayonnaise from Strained Yogurt:

1. Follow step 1 in the above recipe to strain the yogurt.

2. Then add the adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers, lime juice, and the tiniest pinch of salt and sugar. Mix well and serve alongside Mexican food.

Mark says he doesn’t save the water, or whey, that drips down from the yogurt while it’s straining but we freeze ours, and then add it into soups that require broth or water for a protein kick.

The  next strained yogurt recipe I aim to try is Labneh, which I think involves mixing yogurt with salt before tying it up and then straining it for 12 hours instead of 2. We don’t get cottage cheese in India but I’m hoping homemade labneh will satisfy that craving.

Other strained yogurt posts on The Gourmet Cartographer:

Saffron Shrikand (spiced saffron yogurt, an Indian dessert)
Coleslaw with Strained Yogurt Dressing
Beet Tzatziki
Eggplant Tzatziki

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pumpkin muffins

Every so often, I find a miniature orange pumpkin in Bombay. In America I used to buy these pumpkins only as fall decoration, but here, after I stop gazing at them adoringly, I boil them for puree. India is not the land of tinned pumpkin, so each baby pumpkin must be first treasured, then plundered. I freeze the puree until inspiration- or craving- strikes, like this morning, when I rolled out of bed thinking there would be nothing better than a pumpkin muffin for breakfast.

Out came the box of frozen puree and off the shelf, my Dorie Greenspan cookbook. She writes, in Baking, From My Home to Yours, “I’ve got a penchant for pumpkin.” So do I, Dorie. So do I. From Dorie’s recipe, I omitted the raisins as I’m not fond of discovering them in pastries, omitted the sunflower seeds she uses for topping, lessened the sugar, and ground my walnuts instead of chopping them, because while I like the nutty flavor, I don’t like interrupting the soft texture of muffins for knobbly pieces of walnut.

These lightly spiced pumpkin muffins remind me of a fresh fall day, of crunching through a pile of leaves to reach the bright warmth in a patch of sunlight. With Bombay on the precipice of the sauna it calls summer, I can, bite by bite,  transport myself to another season on another continent.

Pumpkin Muffins
adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
pinch of all spice powder
1 stick (8 tbsp;, 4 oz., 113 grams) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup minus 2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup minus 1 tbsp. brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup ground walnuts or pecans

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter or spray 12 molds in a regular size muffin tin, or fit the mold with muffin liners, or use a silicone muffin pan or muffin holders (I used the latter) which don’t need greasing.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.

3. With a hand mixer in a large bowl (or with a stand mixer, should you be lucky enough to have one), beat the butter at medium speed until soft. Add both the sugars and continue to beat until light and smooth. One by one add the eggs, beating for a minute are the eggs are incorporated, then add the vanilla. Lower the mixer speed and mix in the pumpkin and buttermilk. With the mixer at low speed, add the dry ingredients in a steady steam, mixing only until they disappear. To avoid overmixing, you can stop the machine early and stir any remaining dry ingredients into the batter using a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups.

4. Bake for about 25 minutes (mine took only 20) or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean. Transfer the muffins to a rack and cool for 5 minutes, then carefully remove each one from its mold and finish cooling.

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