Unfinished Business

The story of my life last week: I simply floated from one day to the next. Was told by the doctor to take a weeklong leave from work while waiting for the results of a medical test (which just took too damn long to get out). More than anything else, it was a precautionary measure just in case my sickness turned out to be of the contagious kind. Ah, what else could I do but comply. I even missed my long-awaited half-marathon event because of this.

I know it was supposed to be a busy week at work so I had to keep work-related anxieties aside. Best distraction of course came in the form of films and shows. I had a lot of backlog in that department and so I set out to finish off whatever I could (insert my disclaimer that I did do a bit of work and correspondence with the office but apart from that, work didn’t really reach out to me the entire week which is why I love my colleagues). At the same time, some friends sympathetic to my cause gave me lists of shows to tide me over. An early highlight that week was that I finally finished the last season of Breaking Bad. That alone took me a couple more days to recover from, which included rewatching favorite episodes from different seasons and reading their reviews online. I’ll be watching out for the Emmys–they better give Breaking Bad all the awards!

Another obvious source of distraction of course was the kitchen. Perfect opportunity to try out new things.

For instance, I finally got around to using spinach in my cooking. Oh was that underwhelming? Sorry. Usually I’d just toss them raw into my Magic Bullet blender when I used to make fruit-veggie smoothies in the morning. This time, I used it for two different dishes from different cuisines. I had been reading Calvin Trillin’s book, Alice Let’s Eat!, while waiting for my doctor at the hospital. In one of the earlier chapters, he wrote about calalou, a dish which he described as sort of “a puréed vegetable soup–a spicy marvel” which was rooted in the mixed histories of the French and Africans–creole cooking, if you will, from a culinary context. As soon as I finished that chapter, I did some quick research on the soup, opening tabs and tabs on the many variations of its recipe. Eventually I retained a few which had spinach as substitute for callaloo leaves, since I don’t think we have those here in the Philippines.

I will be writing more about calalou/callaloo some other time. The soup uses chicken or vegetable stock, something which I want to work on extensively, leisurely. When I made my calalou, I used the stock left by my sister after boiling chicken for a different recipe she was working on. But Pop and Mom liked it though, in fact all the soup I made was consumed in one happy sitting. At first I wasn’t sure what lasting taste the coconut milk would contribute to the chicken stock, as opposed to fresh cream, but in the end it was all smooth and hearty.

Since I had more spinach than the calalou recipe required, I decided to attempt another spinach dish I’ve been wanting to for some time–palak paneer: spinach simmered in mildly tempered oil, puréed or mashed and cooked again with paneer–cut cubes of those delightful acid-set cheese.

There was (and still currently) a pressing need to use up as much ingredients before they expired. I stocked up on spices and other Indian food stuff last month. I still have poha rice, yellow lentils, ghee, dried red chilis, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried mango powder, red chili powder, tamarind paste, and few more others. Oh and I also had those spice mixes for palak paneer which I brought with me from Ahmedabad.  And yet I had never used them to date.

When I started trying out these recipes, everything of course was done from scratch, and I took my sweet time putting them all together. A recipe good enough for half an hour usually extended to a complete hour and then some. Time flies when you’re under the spell of a recipe. Or two.

Have a feeling I am not alone in doing this–I can’t seem to follow just one recipe when I cook. I like to compare the needed ingredients between or among similar recipes, and pick out the ones I feel could work for me in the kitchen then and there, as well as the methods or steps I can do.

We didn’t have paneer in our fridge though. Since I was just at home and the nearest Indian grocery was around eight kilometers away–too impractical to take on the distance knowing mid-day Manila traffic–I settled for a worthy subsittute: tofu!

Sue Lau’s recipe in for palak paneer had orchestrated the steps in making the dish well enough for me to follow, and for the tofu part I referred to Richa Hingle-Garg’s palak tofu recipe. Do check out their  recipes and be prepared for their food photos. I should definitely like to cook palak paneer and palak tofu again sometime using their recipes separately. I’ll just have to have all the ingredients required.

In the meantime, I documented the progression of my palak tofu as I went from one recipe to the other and back. I’m sure one will understand me even more now why my cooking takes longer than the recipes would normally suggest.

All I can say is it was fun. I did it for me. I liked it. (I’d like to think) I was good at it:

The result reminded me of the palak paneer I had in Kashmir a couple of weeks ago with some colleagues after work, which was a good thing! Just that the gravy in my palak tofu was less watery. Looked around online some more and saw that what I made could actually be more comparable to a typical saag dish (I’m not sure at this point, the local, regional terms lose me–so I’d appreciate any other inputs). Or or, it could be those handfuls of baby corn and eggplant I thought of throwing in (might as well) before pouring back the palak gravy to complete the recipe (You’ll have to understand I couldn’t help myself). Or or or, it could be that I let everything simmer longer than actually needed.

I made enough palak/saag tofu to last the weekend and I was able to bring some to work when I finally and happily returned. I was happy to have cooked the dish finally. I’m just forever curious for now what it would’ve tasted had I thrown cut cubes of paneer instead.