The summer months can be ideal for picnics. Cooking outdoors with friends is always a satisfying change from an overheated kitchen. Chores can be shared at an outdoor party, and cooking becomes a cooperative venture.
Here are two dishes that are ideal to pack for a picnic. Additional items that might complement the menu are grilled veggie burgers, cheese and crackers, a mixed green salad with a spicy Indian dressing, chips and freshly made salsa, olives, pickles, and fresh fruit or a fruit salad.
This popular Indian street food is seldom found on menus outside of India. My cooking class students call it Indian Sushi. Indeed, patra is as portable and presentable as sushi. Traditionally, taro leaves, which cannot be eaten raw, are used to make this dish, but any large edible leaves such as chard or collard greens work perfectly. Cabbage leaves, however, are unsuitable for this recipe.
This is a three-step recipe, and each step can be completed separately to fit your schedule. First, prepared garbanzo flour batter is spread on several large half-leaves that are stacked on top of one another and rolled into logs. The logs are steamed and allowed to cool. The cooled logs are then sliced into thin rounds and briefly pan-fried.
4 large taro leaves or 6 green or red chard leaves and 6 collard leaves, or a combination of the two)
2 cups garbanzo or chickpea flour (besan)
½ teaspoon each of ground turmeric, cayenne, coriander, and cumin powders
½ teaspoon freshly minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
1 cup water
juice of 1 lemon or lime
For pan frying:
3 tablespoons peanut, corn, or safflower oil
½ teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
Step 1: Wash, dry, and cut each leaf in half lengthwise, removing the middle stem. Mix the garbanzo or chickpea flour, spices, salt, lemon juice, and water together to make a batter. Place one half-leaf on a flat dry surface and spread two tablespoons of batter evenly over it. Lay a second half-leaf on top of the first and spread it with the same amount of batter. Continue this process until six to eight half-leaves have been used. Carefully roll the stack of leaves into a log, keeping it very compact. Some batter may fall out. Then tie the roll with a bright-colored thread to keep it from opening. Set aside, and make a second and third roll the same way. The rolls feel wet but will solidify in the next step.
Step 2: To steam the patra, pour 1½ cups of water in a wok or a Dutch oven-type pot with a tight-fitting lid. Lightly oil the surface of a large vegetable steamer basket. Arrange the three rolls in the basket in a triangle shape so that they touch each other only at the ends. Carefully place the steamer basket into the pot and cover. Steam the rolls over medium heat for about 25 minutes, checking to make sure that the water doesn’t boil away. When the rolls look compact and solid, turn the heat off and leave the pot covered for several minutes. Then uncover and remove the basket carefully. Allow the rolls to cool in the basket for 30 minutes; then carefully remove them to a plate. When they are cool enough to handle, snip off the thread and, using a serrated knife, cut the logs into ½-inch thick slices. (The cooled rolls can also be refrigerated overnight and cut into slices the next day for the next step.)
Step 3: Heat the oil in a skillet and add the mustard seeds. Allow the seeds to pop for a few minutes and then carefully place as many patra slices in the frying pan as can be arranged in a single layer. Cook them for a few minutes until golden brown on the bottom. Turn the pieces over carefully and brown the other side. Repeat with any remaining slices. Arrange them artfully on a platter, sprinkle with freshly squeezed lemon juice, and serve with a chutney or yogurt.
Spicy Marinated Tofu Kebabs
Tofu is a nutritious and versatile ingredient, as it takes Indian spices very well. Firm tofu can easily replace home made cheese, or paneer.
1 cup yogurt or soy yogurt
2 tablespoons olive, corn, canola, or safflower oil
2 tablespoons sesame seed paste (tahini) or ground sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon each of ground cayenne and cinnamon
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root
½ teaspoon salt, to taste
½ teaspoon each of cumin and coriander powder
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or parsley, to taste
1 pound firm tofu cut into 1” cubes
Make the marinade by blending all ingredients in a mixing bowl using a fork. Place the tofu cubes in the bowl and mix gently to coat them with the marinade. Allow the tofu to soak in the marinade for 1 or 2 hours or even overnight. When ready to grill, thread the tofu cubes onto skewers, drizzling additional marinade over the top. Grill them on open fire or on a grill, turning frequently until they become brown and begin to blister. Transfer the skewers to serving platters and serve the remaining marinade in a bowl as a dipping sauce.
Creamy Fresh Mango Chutney
This chutney makes a good dipping sauce for patra and the tofu kebabs.
2 large or 3 medium size mangoes, peeled, pits removed and cut into chunks
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger root
1 jalapeno pepper, (seeds and veins removed) chopped
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
2 tablespoons each water, freshly squeezed orange juice, and lemon juice
Place all the ingredients in the jar of a food processor or blender and mix until smooth. Transfer the chutney to a jar and refrigerate until ready to pack for the picnic.