This weekend, my beau and I were invited to lunch with his supervisor, who is of Indian descent. His supervisor and his supervisor's wife made us a traditional Indian meal, with a few amusing and enjoyable "non-traditional" elements.
My favorite part of the meal were the savory and moist cakes made with rice flour and stone-ground lentils. The cakes were steamed until soft and puffy in a rice-cooker fitted with an elaborate steaming rack. The cakes were filled with thousands of tiny air pockets, almost reminiscent of that of a carbonated beverage. The fluffy and airy consistency of the savory cakes was a cross between the chocolate cake within a Hostess Snowball (the ones coated in a neon pink coconut "snow") and spongy steamed dim sum char siu buns (that are filled with red barbequed pork).
We also sampled homemade paneer cheese, which had been cooked in a thickened curry-like gravy. As we dined, our hosts provided us with a step-by-step explanation on how to make authentic paneer. First, one must begin with two gallons of whole milk and a plastic container of plain yogurt. Then, the dairy combination is boiled until the curds and liquid whey separate. The curds are then strained in triple layers of cheesecloth, and the bundle of curds are balled up and hung from the metal faucet in a sink until the cheese solidifies into the deliciousness known as paneer.
Our main course was an Americanized cheesy vegetable casserole that had been baked until golden brown, yet molten hot and bubbly. Additionally, we enjoyed stewed and curried carrots and peas cooked in an ornately-decorated Indian pot, and deep-fried nests of shredded zucchini flavored with pungent spices that provided an almost Southwestern-like flair.
After our spicy lunch, we rushed over to church to help out with cooking. This week, we were to help out with making borscht. By the time we arrived, the other volunteers had already completed the "chopping" stage. Our duties? To stir the bubbling purplish-red soup contents in the behemoth vat. The soup contents included hot strands of stringy and limp red cabbage, tender cubes of beets, and softened red bell peppers that had been sautéed in olive oil. The liquid in the borscht was stock made from ham bones, whole cloves of garlic, cubed yellow onions, and black peppercorns. As we stirred the soup, it was hard not to cackle and pretend that we were witches, vigilantly adding vials of powdered ingredients into a blackened cauldron.
After the vegetables in the borscht had cooked through sufficiently, we took the soup off the heat and readied ourselves to blend the contents into a thickened purée. We couldn't find a long-handled metal ladle, so we used bowls with stumpy glass handles (handles that were not nearly long enough to keep the hot, sloppy, and sloshing soup contents at bay from inflicting our skin with stinging burn wounds) to scoop the soup into the narrow opening of the glass blender.
The molten melange burst through the volcanic hole at the top of the blender, and the steam from the boiling fluid prevented the rubber lips of the blender lid from forming a tight seal with the glass circumference of the glass pitcher component of the blender. The blender acted like a steaming geyser spewing forth hot magma. Our hands and faces were reddened with anger and chapped from being repeatedly scalded by the hot soup.
Although the process was miserable, the outcome of the soup was rather tasty. After the soup was puréed, it darkened into a deep, thick, and creamy magenta. The soup had powerful overtones of spicy peppercorns, and released the sweetness of the red cabbage and red bell peppers throughout the purée. After sampling the borscht, my tastebuds helped to make my raw and blistered hands feel much better.
It was a hot and spicy Sunday, that's for sure. But it was still a success, in terms of delighting in deliciously fiery foods, and also learning to make a boiling hot borscht (for the first time).