Cooking with Plums and Pine Nuts
It’s a beautiful day; the sun and sky are at their very best as I walk out to the open-air poolside area of The Lalit Mumbai. Impeccable tables have been set up to overlook the cool blue water and the sight of voluptuous red plums, heaped aplenty, is the first thing that catches my eye. The late afternoon rays light up a glass of champagne, making it look like liquid gold, just as the hotel’s executive sous chef, Ravish Mishra, greets me with a bowl of pine nuts…a good start to a gastronomic evening, indeed. Chef Ashish Naranje soon joins us and, immediately, the two culinary experts begin bouncing fun ideas off each other. “Do you want us to pretend-duel each other with our long knives?” they ask me, with mischievous smiles, and I am assured that this is going to be an amusing afternoon.
Both chefs excitedly move to their cooking stations, but not before coaxing me into tasting the star ingredients for the day. I’m not usually one to pick a plum if ever offered a fruit bowl, but I am delightfully surprised when I bite into one of the shiny, crimson fruits. Perhaps I’ve been converted. The pine nuts, too, are extremely pleasing to the palate. I was already quite content with the ingredients chosen for the cook-off, but after bearing witness to the excellent quality of the produce on the table and learning about the chefs’ backgrounds, I have great expectations from the two men.
Chef Naranje’s food journey began at a very early age, as he played sous chef to his grandmother and mother in their exceptionally large family kitchen. He kicked off his career at IHM Trivandrum and has worked at a slew of five-star restaurants all over the country, perfecting his butchery and plating skills over the years. This is confirmed as he places his finished creation on the table. At first look, the delicate and very stylish arrangement could be mistaken for a dessert — something I was anticipating from at least one of the chefs — but Chef Naranje’s pan-seared sea bass is anything but that. He has, cleverly and with precision, cut the plum and arranged it to look like the scales of the fish, while another bit of the fruit has been manipulated along with mozzarella to create a tissue-thin crisp. The pine nuts have been incorporated into a salad that looks like an artist’s canvas. “Pine nuts not only have a delicate texture and unusual taste, but are also an expensive ingredient. So, if not seen on the plate, they lose their value,” he explains.
Keeping the wow factor going, Chef Mishra presents his own magnum opus, which he has christened dahi alu bukhara ke kebab — featuring luscious kebabs made of fresh hung curd and pine nuts, filled with plum relish. He tells me that he, too, gets his inspiration from family and, in particular, his mother. He cooks with great passion, preferring to keep his flavours and plating clean and uncomplicated. The chef has worked at a handful of prestigious Indian hotels and restaurants, but it was his time cooking on board the Carnival Cruise Lines that really exposed him to a multitude of international cuisines, approaches and styles.
I quickly understand why neither of the two men went the sweet route, their ambition and thirst for creativity steering them away from anything predictable or obvious. Chef Mishra agrees that both he and his colleague appreciate a challenge. “The best thing about a fruit like plum is its versatile nature. It can be used in any form — raw or cooked — and, when combined with the right ingredients, brings out an amazingly intense flavour,” he says. Chef Naranje adds, “Using fruit and nut in a main course rather than a dessert could be challenging, but that’s exactly what I like. I believe that it’s important to first know the nature, flavour and texture of your ingredients before starting anything…and then your imagination can take over!”
Dahi Alu Bukhara Ke Kebab
For the patty
Hung curd, 250 gm; Pine nuts, 20 gm; Green chilli, 20 gm; Mace powder, 5 gm; Cardamom powder, 5 gm; Sandalwood powder, 2 gm; Rose petal powder, 1 gm; Salt, to taste; White pepper powder, 5 gm.
For the plum relish
Fresh plums, 100 gm; Cumin, 5 gm; Fennel seeds, 5 gm; Oil, 10 ml; Vinegar (white), 25 ml; Sugar, 30 gm; Salt, 10 gm; Pine nuts, 10 gm; Kalonji, 5 gm; Bay leaf, 1; Ghee, 20 gm.
For the sprout salad
Fresh plums, 20 gm; Watercress, 25 gm; Lentil sprouts, 25 gm; Pomegranate juice, 20 ml; Rock salt, to taste; Lemon juice, 10 ml; Olive oil, 10 ml; Edible flowers.
For the curd patty
Whip the hung curd using a spatula; add the seasoning and spices. Toast and crush pine nuts, and add to the mixture with finely chopped chillies. Divide into six round portions. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
For the plum relish
In a pan, heat the oil and spices. Add chopped plums and salt, and then add vinegar to cook the plums until they’re soft. Add sugar and cook until you achieve a jam-like consistency. Cool the relish in the refrigerator.
For the kebab
After refrigeration, make insertions in the curd balls using your thumb. Fill in the plum relish (1 tsp per curd patty), and close the curd roundels from all sides using your palm.
For the salad
Cut the plum into thin slices; wash sprouts and watercress. Make a dressing of pomegranate juice with lemon juice, olive oil and rock salt. Mix and refrigerate.
For the assembly: Shallow-fry the kebabs until they’re golden-brown on both sides. Serve the salad on the side with a mint and garlic chutney. Decorate with edible flowers.
Pan-seared Sea Bass with Caper berries and a Mushroom Pine Nut Salad with Olive Dust and Plum Reduction
For sea bass marination
Sea bass, 250 gm; Salt, to taste; White pepper powder, 5 gm; Lemon juice, 5 ml.
For potato mash and plum relish
Potatoes, 100 gm; Fresh plum, 50 gm; Butter, 50 gm; Salt, to taste.
For lemon plum reduction
Fresh plums, 100 gm; Lemon slices, 5 gm; Vegetable stock, 100 gm; Butter, 100 gm; Vinegar (white), 10 ml; Star anise, 1; Sugar, to taste.
Fresh mushrooms, 50 gm; Fresh caper berries, 10 gm; Extra virgin olive oil, 15 ml; Pine nuts, 5 gm; Lemon plum reduction, 10 ml; Baby radish, 5 gm; Amaranthus leaves, 5 gm; Beet leaves, 5 gm; Sunflower leaves, 5 gm; Maltodextrin, 150 ml.
For mozzarella plum crisp
Fresh mozzarella cheese, 10 gm; Fresh plum, 5 gm; Olive oil, 5 ml.
Marinate the sea bass in the salt, pepper and lemon juice, and keep aside.
For the lemon plum reduction
Cut the plums into thin slices and cut the slices in half. Mix together the vinegar, sugar and star anise. Once this liquid comes to boil, turn off the heat and add the plum. Strain it after five minutes. Add slices of lemon, vegetable stock and butter and allow it to simmer until the liquid is reduced to one-third of the original amount. Strain and cool.
For the salad
Dehydrate the mushrooms in the oven at 270 degrees celsius, for eight minutes. Marinate them in the lemon plum reduction for a while and remove. Blanch the baby radish and peel off the skin, leaving the stem attached. Add the micro greens and arrange the salad as shown in the image.
For the olive dust
Stir the extra virgin olive oil and Maltodextrin vigorously together with a hand blender, to form a powder.
For the potato mash and plum relish
Peel the potato and boil in salt water. Dice the plum and poach it in port wine until it becomes tender. Once the potato is cooked, pass it through a sieve to achieve a fine mash. Spread a layer of potato followed by a layer of plum.
For the mozzarella crisp
Place the fresh mozzarella on a silicon paper and cover with the same. Roll it until it becomes thin. Place a very fine slice of plum over it and roll again. Leave to dry overnight.
Sear the fish on a pan and assemble with the salad, lemon plum reduction and potato mash. Sprinkle the olive dust over the salad and add the crisp.
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