A midweek supper at home with girlfriends seemed just about perfect - once we'd wrested the cork out of the Prosecco, and proved that we did not need a man around to have a good time. This was a gathering of friends we'd been trying to coordinate for several months, but then Christmas got in the way. January is always a rather flat month, with everyone feeling rather post-Christmas, and the days grey and cold. An evening with good friends is a great way to lighten the atmosphere.
I planned an easy menu to suit everyone: one guest was a fish-eating vegetarian, so I made Madhur Jaffrey's fish baked in foil, a Keralan dish called Meen Pollichathu, which is simple in its ingredients, but very tasty. As a canape to have with the Prosecco, I made onion bhajis, and for pudding, my current culinary piece de resistance, Jo's Chocolate Tart.
Whenever I am with women friends, I am amazed at the breadth and variety of our conversations, ranging over subjects as diverse as our children, gay men and their quirks (irritating and otherwise), fashion and make up, politics, art, music. Our ability to dart from subject to subject, going off on weird tangents before returning to a subject touched on an hour or more before, is perhaps related to the female skill of multi-tasking.
The Keralan fish dish is great for supper parties because it looks good: a pale pink salmon steak topped with an aromatic mix of tomatoes, onion, garlic and curry leaves. I like to serve it with plain Basmati rice, and a pickle or relish of some sort. Last night, I made Aubergine and Sweet Potato Subji as an accompaniment, not a Keralan dish (it hails from the north Indian Punjab region). The fish can be prepared in advance, wrapped in foil and then cooked to order. According to the preamble to the recipe in Madhur Jaffrey's 'Flavours of India', traditionally the fish is wrapped in a banana leaf and 'baked' in a wok. Unfortunately, there were no banana leaves available in Teddington for ready money..... You can use a whole fish, such as red snapper, turbot, kingfish or grey mullet, or steaks from a meaty fish such as salmon, swordfish or cod. It has just occurred to me that this would be a great dish for the barbecue. As with many Indian dishes, you make a spice paste first and combine this with the other ingredients.
Fish baked in foil (serves 4)
2 tsps sunflower, vegetable or similar oil
3oz shallots or onion, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced
15-20 fresh curry leaves (if you can get them) or dried curry leaves
4 tsps cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp black peppercorns
You will also need
3 tbsps oil (see above)
1 medium-large red onion, finely chopped
4-6 fresh green chillies
1 medium-sized tomato, finely diced
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbps coarsely chopped fresh coriander
4 fish steaks
Make the spice paste first. Heat the oil in a small pan over a medium-low heat. When hot, add the shallots/onions, garlic, ginger and curry leaves. Stir and fry for a few minutes, until the onions begin to soften, then add the cayenne pepper and salt. Remove from heat and blitz in the food-processor or blender with the vinegar and 2 tsbps water. Meanwhile, put the black peppercorns in a small, heated pan. Roast over a medium heat for 2 mins, then crush in a mortar and add to the onion mixture. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a wide pan or wok over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and fry until soft. Add the chillies and fry until they begin to soften. Then add the tomatoes, sesame seeds and salt. Cook until the tomato is soft. Set aside.
To assemble, place each fish steak on a piece of foil big enough to make a little bag. (If using a whole fish, make sure the foil bag is big enough to wrap the fish.) Make a couple of slashes in the fish, smear with the spice paste, sprinkle fresh coriander and the spoon the tomato/onion mixture. Seal the foil bags and bake in a preheated oven (200C) for about 15 mins, or until the fish is cooked. Unwrap and transfer to warmed plates. Serve with plain Basmati rice, or spicy potatoes.