lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Potato frying 101

"… We have, reluctantly, translated them into metric terms because Nanny Ogg used throughout the very specialized unit of measure known as the 'some' (as in 'Take some flour and some sugar').

This required some, hah, experiment, because the 'some' is a unit of some, you see, complexity. Some flour is almost certainly more than some salt, but there appears to be no such thing as half of some, although there was the occasional mention of a 'bit' as in 'a bit of pepper'.

Instinctively, one feels that a bit of flour is more than some pepper but probably less than a bit of butter, and that a wodge of bread is probably about a handful, but we have found no reliable way of measuring a gnat's.

….We have not been able to come up with a reliable length of time equivalent to a 'while', which is an exponential measurement - one editor considered on empirical evidence that a 'while' in cookery was about 35 minutes, but we found several usages elsewhere of 'quite a while' extending up to ten years, which is a bit long for batter to stand."
A note from the editors of that wonderful tome, Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, Terry Pratchett, Stephen Briggs.

My father believed in research and backing any statement he made with proof. If you are a literary historian making pronouncements on deciphered inscriptions it makes sense to be cautious; even otherwise, it is good policy.

Conditioned by my father, I am always impressed and a bit awed by cookery blogs. How can they say so confidently 250 grams of this, 10 grams of that and so on? They give weights and measures and cooking times as though it is all set in stone. Those blogs intimidate me. I picture the bloggers weighing ingredients on scales until the weight is exactly right (do they chop veg to match stated weight?), doling out spices by teaspoonfuls or hunting for the quarter teaspoon measure which must have emigrated or sought refugee status elsewhere, like mine has.

Rimi asks for my pasta recipe, Dipali suggests I write about our majjiga pulusu/moar kuzhambu/kadhi debate. I wouldn't know where to begin, really.

I cook by approximation and guesstimates and instinct. I am not as much a free cook as my sister is, who dips into the salt and sprinkles it by hand, trusting her judgment and experience, but I still cook without measures, mostly.

We all have cups or bowls we measure rice and lentils with for daily cooking, of course, and we use spoons to add spices to the dishes. But most of us won't be able to state exact amounts of anything used, I am sure.

Take potatoes, for instance. When you cook for two people as a regular thing, you learn to judge quantities. I cook two or three potatoes, depending on size. It also depends on whether I am cooking for two meals or one, on other accompaniments. If my son is at home, I cook thrice the amounts, as he likes my stir-fried potatoes and demolishes them faster than I can cook.

So if I want to give you a recipe, how can I say 200 grams or a kilo? I can stir fry one potato or a dozen, the technique is the same, but I couldn't tell you how I go about it if I had to give weights. Four cups of pasta, I can say, but it might be three onions if large or seven or eight if small. It all depends, you see?

But my son rather likes my stir-fried potatoes. Like most of my daily cooking, it is a simple recipe. There is no secret ingredient, other than the ease that comes with making a dish countless number of times. These potatoes go best with rasam and rice or curd rice.

I suppose there is a secret. It is to dice the potatoes evenly. Whether it is a couple of them or a couple of dozen of them, they will cook better if they are evenly shaped and sized. I can tell you how I go about dicing the potatoes in great detail, actually.

I use chandramukhi potatoes that are popular in Calcutta. These cook fast and tend to be rather moist, but they are ideal for my stir-fried recipe. I wouldn't know how other varieties will turn out, or how long they will take to cook.

I pare potatoes and slice them, one centimeter thick (yes, I measured that), and then cube the slices a centimeter thick. Depending on my mood, the season, or the phases of the moon, I might make the thickness half a centimeter, too. If I was insanely rich or ran a restaurant, I suppose I'd discard the edges as they will be uneven, but I am not that much of a fanatic about symmetry (Hercule Poirot, please forgive me).

Once the potatoes are diced, I rinse them to remove excess flouriness, and pat them dry. Then I heat the frying pan. I use a nonstick frying pan. I suppose these can be cooked in a standard cast-iron pan, but I prefer the nonstick pan as it takes very little oil.

I add the potatoes to the heated oil, shake them about so they get coated evenly with the oil, make sure they are well spread, and cover the pan. In the three or four minutes it takes them to get crisp and golden edges, I mix my spices together. This is better than adding them to the potatoes one by one.

Other than salt, I add powdered cumin and coriander mainly. Dried mango powder and chilli powder too, but that is a gnat's. I can't give you measurements. For three medium sized potatoes, I suppose I add a tad less than a spoon each of jeera and dhania powder, and a pinch of amchoor and a very judicious spattering of chilli powder. Again, this depends on my mood; some days I might go heavy on the coriander, on others it might be the cumin that dominates.

I must caution you about one thing, though. My spices are ground at home. I dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind small amounts regularly to keep the flavours fresh. I am not sure how the potatoes will turn out if you use ready bought spices. Even the dried mango I buy whole strips and grind at home. The chilli powder is a mix of two kinds, Kashmiri for the colour and regular for the punch. Those I do buy, from a shop that specializes in fresh ground spices.

So, after the potatoes develop a crisp coating I sprinkle the spices, all thoroughly mixed, make sure that it is all evenly spread, lower the flame, and put the lid on again. As they get crisp and done, I shake the pan once in a while.

The next thing to do is to cook the rest of the meal, and serve it. Simple, like I said.

Recent conversation at Chez Em:

"Honey, are you feeling generous?"
"What do you want to buy?"
"Um, you know those kitchen scales that come with digital readouts? I think I'd like one."
"Well, then I could measure things as I cook them and start a new blog, Lali's Kitchen."
"But you don't measure things anyway. And what's wrong with Larking?"



Anonymous dipali said...

A delicious and delightful post,Lali. I also loved the excerpt defining 'some'! Have to try out the fried potatoes version 101 asap

12:42 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

Majjiga pulusu/moar kuzhambu/kadhi debate might have made a better post, Lali. This is not a patch on your omelette post, I must say.

1:16 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Dipali- I wish I could have quoted the entire note from the editors, it is hilarious. I am sure the spuds will come out fine, do let me know. :-)

Ash- There is no pleasing you. I am not going to do the majjiga pulusu debate ever, so there. And that omelette post was ages ago.

6:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Xanadu.
Weave a circle round her thrice...for she on honeydew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise...
@ Ash: Eggs, potatoes, same difference.
Secret admirer

10:35 pm  
Blogger anantha said...

Missus Em: Most masters do work with their instinct. I do, for that matter. :D

Chandramukhi potatoes are popular in Calcutta?? Does Thalaivar know that? :D

2:17 am  
Blogger Alien said...

Sigh.. for the want of a scale, a blog was lost.... :-)

8:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lali, remember lakshmi's koora! since you are using mango powder try MDH's Tava Fry powder. potatoes taste better- kavita

10:14 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anon- I suppose I should be grateful you didn't quote the bit about woman wailing for her demon lover. Get a name.

Anantha- It takes one to know one. :-) Who is this Thalaivar and what is his interest in Chandramukhi? ;-)

Alien- ET, I don't think I could have maintained a cookery blog for long. I am not such a foodie.

Kavi- I still try to reproduce Lakshmi's koottu that she used to make for puris. I never buy packaged spice powders, as I wonder how old they are. And I am jobless enough to grind my own mostly.

1:29 pm  
Blogger chronicwriter said...

long one.. but gud one.....

3:06 pm  
Anonymous Non Sequitur Man said...

A letter in Daily Telegraph, 1983

The hymn 'Onward Christian Soldiers', sung to the right tune and in a not-too-brisk tempo, makes a very good egg timer. If you put the egg into boiling water and sing all five verses and chorus, the egg will be just right when you come to Amen.

Lady Larking knows all about it, perhaps.

10:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife does wonderful things with leftovers- she throws them out.

10:27 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Chronicwriter- Hello, new kid on the block. You obviously haven't read me being wordy. This is a mere 1200 odd words, sir, I do more than that regularly, alas.

NSM- To quote Pratchett again, "As long as it takes to sing 'Where Has All The Custard Gone?' looked helpful, but we haven't been able to find the words,..." Tee hee.

Anon- Give my love to your wife. She knows best.

10:54 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

I can't wait to get to your dining table, Babe.
Btw, I think you should've mentioned "some"where that whether those hands are in splints or struck numb and stiff, the size of the dices never falter. Half-one centimeter they are, precisely. Gaah. I want you here, NOW. Am sick and tired of cooking. Wish someone fed me, at least ONE meal.(breaks into a sob)

7:23 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Priya- (Offers shoulder and a tissue) There, there, angel. Come to Lali and I will cook a mega meal for you. As for the dicing, practice make perfect, dear.

1:31 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

I'm most miffed! Did I not expressly say my phone shall go into servicing? Do you not know how long these people take? They say Saturday and deliver Tuesday.

Now I get my phone back, and guess who's left miffed messages? Hmph! There had better be lunch to compensate for this. Or a loan of handpicked books.

This is a threat.

8:11 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

Erm. Okay. Recant, recant.

I grin uncertainly at you, Lali. And hope for forgiveness :-)

8:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Potatoes, eggs, whatever, as your Secret Admirer says. You have a brilliant blog, Lalita Mukherjea. Why aren't you writing more about crosswords these days? Pandering, are you? Dumbing yourself down? Trawling through your archives I get the feeling you are. So sue me.

10:32 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Rimi- You most certainly did not say so, but never mind. There is always lunch for thee Princess. And books too.

Anon- If you'd made those remarks under your name I'd deign to reply.

9:18 am  
Blogger Sivaram said...

Please do not think this is an attempt a one-up or a better potato salad !
It happens to be my daughter's favorite poem :

To make this condiment your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard boiled eggs;
Two boil'd potatoes, pass'd through kitchen-sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half suspected animate the whole.
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites too soon.
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault
To add a double quantity of salt.
And, lastly o'er the flavor'd compound toss
A magic soup-spoon of anchovy sauce.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Sivaram- That's a lovely poem. I think I will try it, omitting the anchovy sauce, of course.

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Prophet of Doom said...

Tonight's dinner menu .. Potato-Stir-Fry ... Nice jab at recipe blogs, Mrs. M! About time I learned some of your sarcasm ..

6:38 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ooh, look who dropped in! Um. No jab, Ram, I really marvel how they can be so sure, the recipe bloggers, I do.

10:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


8:14 am  

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