Cooking for lots of people, part 4: patra leaves

One of a series of posts in advance of cooking a charity curry. 

Patra leaves, also known as alu vadi, are a kind of inside-out pakora. I first encountered them as a tinned food. I grew up in Hull which at the time was not very racially diverse, with few opportunities to buy curry ingredients other than the more limited ranges at supermarkets. There was however an Asian grocers’ near where we lived – Indian & Continental Stores – and my love of curry is born of the smell of this shop and the smell of the cupboard where my parents kept the spices. When cooking, I tend to smell spices before I put them into the pan, perhaps to help me imagine how they will taste, but perhaps also for that remembered thrill of smelling something unknown and intriguing.

patra leaves

My sister is a big fan of patra leaves, which they sold at Indian and Continental. When she left Hull, she couldn’t get patra leaves anywhere (even when she lived in Wolverhampton – the Indian community there was not from Gujarat, where patra leaves originate). For years, she would visit the shop whenever she was in Hull and buy every tin of patra leaves they had.

I found a recipe for patra leaves in the Hansa’s cookbook [Hansa’s is a vegetarian Gujarati restaurant in Leeds]. So I had a go at making them. I bought a pack of the leaves. The leaves are about two feet from the tip to the rounded ends.

First you cut a Y shape out of them to remove the hard ribs.

Then you mix up a paste of chick pea flour, spices, oil and water, which is very stiff and difficult to work.

Then you spread the paste on the leaves, which is difficult as it wants to stay stuck to itself and not the leaves, and because the now-fragile leaves easily tear into three pieces. Then you put on another leaf and spread with paste, then a third leaf and spread with paste. The whole pile is then rolled up into a tight fist-sized pillow. Then you repeat the process for the remaining leaves, of which you have bought enough to make eight or ten rolls.

Then realise that you have been scratching your forehead as it is the middle of summer and baking-, prickly-hot, and that there is an itching spreading across your skin. You remember that the leaves are poisonous when raw and so presumably are causing the itching.

Once all the leaves are used, you steam the pillows for two hours and a half and leave them to cool.

You are now at the same point as you would be if you had bought a tin and opened it – except that, as you will discover later, the tinned version has a much better balance of spices in the paste and tastes far superior to your slaved-over, sworn-at, head-itch-causing rolls. The fault is your own rather than the Hansa’s cookbook’s – it turns out that you – by which I of course mean I – have been rather slapdash in your measurements when making the paste.

I have since seen on the internet that the trick is not to cut a Y-shaped hole in the leaves, but instead to put the blade flat to the back of the leaf and only slice away the raised rib. This keeps the leaf essentially intact, and not prone to splitting in three. I’ve also discovered that you need only steam the rolls for half an hour – the Hansa’s cookbook was not mine, so I can’t now check whether the error there, like the measurement of spices, was also mine.

A little over a year ago, I sous cheffed at a vegan edition of Cath’s Messy Cook Supper Club. One of the courses was a curry course, and we made patra leaves from scratch. They were a roaring success, and nobody’s forehead got poisoned. The only hiccup was that the stall in Leeds market where we ordered the leaves from suggested we should get a box when we asked to order forty. The day before the supper club, when the cooking started in earnest, I arrived at the stall to be presented with a polystyrene box two feet wide and a bill for £22. As I walked away with what must have been two hundred and twenty leaves, I couldn’t help wonder why we hadn’t just been sold two of the rolls of around twenty leaves that were sitting on the stall. You live and learn, I guess.

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Cooking for lots of people, part 3: the menu

One in a series of posts on advance of a charity curry I will be cooking. 

This post is mainly addressed to the future attendees of the charity curry, who will be directed to this blog if they want to know more about what they are eating. Hello future diners, I hope you are looking forward to your dinner / having a good time / feeling very pleased with what you have eaten / fully recovered. Reading this is probably a better option than trying to converse directly with the possibly-very-stressed man in the kitchen, though do say hello once it’s all done.

The menu has been planned. Any discrepancies between what you read and what you have or had on your plate are definitely because we have refined our plan and definitely not because of some sort of shopping or cooking disaster. Definitely.

As a disclaimer: I make no claim to expertise nor ‘authenticity’ [the latter claim is currently getting Gordon Ramsey a lot of grief on social media for his new Asian restaurant]. I’ve tried to indicate in this post some of the main flavours and a few interesting notes, without being so comprehensive [at least as far as I can be] that it becomes a chore to read.

Caveats out of the way: we are starting with something that could probably be called chaat. Chaats are street food snacks, and come in so many varieties that I’m sure my take is in keeping with at least one. A salad of cucumber, red onion and apple with a few chick peas will be flavoured with home-made chaat spice – there are ready-mixed chaat spices available but all tend to be quite hot, and I’m wary of stretching an unknown audience’s tolerance of chilli. The salad will be dressed with mint, tamarind sauce, yoghurt, and some combination of crunchy snacky things including sev (crispy fried noodles made of chick pea flour). There will be poppadoms and chutneys, one of which Cath has made. And there will be patra leaves, which will get a post all of their own; patra leaves are hot, another reason to keep the chilli to a minimum in the rest of the starter.

goat curry

The main course will feature a slow-cooked meat curry, probably lamb unless Elspeth can get some mutton [the recipe is based on a goat dish I’ve done a couple of times], marinated overnight with a spice mix that is heavy on black cardamom and garlic. Chicken thighs will also be marinated, with cumin, cardamom and paprika, and then cooked in a tomato-based sauce featuring more cumin along with coriander and fennel seed, finished with cream. Chick peas, which are pretty much obligatory as far as I am concerned when curry is on the menu, will also feature tomatoes, this time in combination with coconut. Masoor dhal – aka red lentils – with spinach will be flavoured with a clove-heavy spice mix and a lot of garlic slowly fried until it is turning a toasty brown, with a good splash of lemon to brighten the flavour at the end. Roast potato curry (the closest I have to a signature dish) uses parboiled potatoes dusted with cardamom and asafoetida (a great spice that, in its raw state, smells like a cross between creosote and cat pee). A few peas and diced vegetables plus some spices will nudge the rice in the direction of being a pulao.

Dessert will be a simple affair – yoghurt flavoured with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and kewra water, an infusion that has something of the floral quality of rosewater but is also completely different. It’s made of the flower of the pandan (aka screwpine) plant.

Cooking for lots of people, part 2: writing recipes

One of a series of posts in advance of cooking a charity curry. 

While I tend to be rather lax about writing recipes down, I do have some form for doing it. Friends have asked me for recipes for things I have cooked, and I had an email that I would forward on to anyone who wanted it with a collection of curry recipes. It started with roast potato curry and gathered others as it went. Few recipes were ‘definitive’, instead often having suggestions for different combinations of spices or other adaptations.

Then one day my friend Elspeth – she of the daughter’s school – rang me to say she was getting married, and would I like to cater for the wedding with a massive curry feast. In the end this didn’t happen (mainly because there were going to be 120 people! A lucky escape for me and for all of them, I suspect…). But it got me thinking: what would I have cooked if I did cater for Elspeth’ and Tom’s big day? This prompted me to write a plan for a wedding feast, gather together the existing email recipes and write up a few others, and collect them in a book. I got a few printed so that I could give a copy to Elspeth and Tom as a wedding present. It’s been through three printings, with a few tweaks and improvements, and to date there are about seventy copies of Thomas’s House of Curry in the hands of various friends and family, stretching from Massachusetts to Hong Kong. I’ve even watched one of the dishes be prepared in Hong Kong via video call.

I don’t have any real sense of how well I write recipes. I’ve not had any negative feedback, which is a good sign [though whether a good sign about my writing, or about the politeness of my friends and family, I don’t know]. I’ve had some positive feedback. And, of the book as a whole which includes some anecdotes and other ramblings in much the style of this blog, my mother said “it’s like listening to you talk about cooking”, which I have chosen to take as a compliment. My mother is impeccably polite.

Cooking for lots of people, part 1: LOTS of people

One of a series of posts in advance of cooking a charity curry. 

three curry dishes

I’ve been asked to cook curry for a charity event, raising money for my friend Elspeth’s daughter’s school. This will be for seventy people. Yikes.

I’ve cooked for fairly large numbers of people before. I’ve sous cheffed at two of Cath’s Messy Cook supper clubs, the larger of which was a six-course cheese-based menu for twenty-six people; this was in a small kitchen of a coffee shop that is more geared up for sandwiches and light lunch bites than for multi-dish dairy extravaganzas (the use of a kitchen for the 36 hours leading up to this was vital!). I’ve cooked curry for thirty-five people, most recently in a two-day belated housewarming between xmas and new year, but also as a single occasion many years ago for a load of Leeds University postgraduate students, in collaboration with a very good friend who was a postgrad there at the time; this was in a domestic kitchen with woefully underpowered electric hobs (in a way, that evening included an element of cooking for seventy, in that the enormous pan of rice I had cooked was only half-eaten by the end of the night).

Seventy people is a lot of people. I’ve never been a great one for following recipes, nor for writing them down [more on this in a few moments], which means trying to work out quantities for seventy people is proving a little tricky. And for all that the internet is full of information, it has proven a little difficult to find out the weight of meat than can be cooked per litre of slow cooker space. [It seems, as far as I can tell, that meat is marginally denser than water and so 1kg equates to a shade less than a litre. With a combined total of 8 litres of slow cooker space, I’m requesting 7kg of meat.

More difficult than working out how much meat to order (and how to turn such a blind eye to my own vegetarianism!) is judging the quantity of spices to use. I spice by eye, so it’s not as simple as “I use 1 tablespoon for six people, so… [pause to do some mental arithmetic] …eleven and two-thirds tablespoons for seventy people”. My strategy will be to estimate a fraction cautiously, and add more if needed: curries often get a kick of flavour from spices tempered in hot oil and added at the end, so that’s my escape plan.

Form and function

A quick plea to anybody out there who is responsible for choosing cups for a restaurant, cafe, or even just the kitchen at home. Please don’t buy cups with handles so small that you (well, me – my hands are fairly chunky so I have more of a problem…) can’t get your finger through the handle.

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In the above instance, I can just about get the first half inch of my finger through the hole. But then there is nothing for the finger below to comfortably rest on to counteract the weight of the cup. The wall of the cup is hot and will be uncomfortable on the knuckle. I like nice ceramics (the picture above doesn’t do justice to cup), but first and foremost a cup is a functional item.

A picture that didn’t get used in a recent review:

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Fair enough not to use it – dreadful lighting, slightly out of focus, makes the corn look grey – but felt worth adding in as a slightly tenuous second point about ‘form and function’: these are corn ribs, the name coming from their similarity to spare ribs – both the shape and the manner of eating. They are not a ‘meat substitute’ (though I don’t inherently have a problem with those); they work because the function (being delicious) works so well.

Read the full review here: http://leedsliving.co.uk/food-drink/review-neon-cactus-has-a-new-menu/

Read more about eating meat substitutes at the following review of the sadly closed down Wanderer: http://leedsliving.co.uk/food-drink/wanderers-vegan-junk-food-reviewed/