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Turning over a new leaf

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When I am in the hills, I always leave some extra minutes in my military-like schedule for a friend who is in love with greens. During the Dussehra break, when we were frolicking in a little known spot called Gethia up in the Kumaon Hills, the friend would make a series of unscheduled stops to peer knowledgably at some growing leaf on the hillside. This is what we use for soup, she would say, pointing to a particularly sinister looking leaf; this we would eat raw, she would say, looking fondly at another dodgy specimen.

One of these days, I would like her to meet my friend, chef Sharad Dewan, of The Park in Calcutta. Chef Dewan, who is now director, food production, is another lover of greens. A few weeks ago, when I was in Calcutta, he treated me to a delicious meal of dishes cooked with various kinds of saags.

I had no idea that there were these many kinds of greens in Bengal. In the North, where I grew up, saags were of a few kinds — we liked our palak (spinach), our sarson (mustard leaves) and our methi (fenugreek), and there were occasions when we had mooli saag (radish leaves) or bathua, which is known by several English names, including fat hen and goosefoot.

“But in Bengal there are a hundred kinds of saags,” says the chef. And I believe him, for the menu he had conjured up was as interesting as it was vast. It included everything from palak and pui (Malabar spinach) to lal saag (chard) and kalmi saag (water spinach or water morning glory). Even leaves that I had never put in the saag category figured on the menu. Fresh green leaves of cauliflowers, for instance, appeared in a lip-smacking dish of phoolgobhi patta Akbari kababs. “What is saag but the leaves of plants,” says chef Dewan.

Indeed, when I was a young lad with scraped knees wreaking havoc in the quiet tree-lined roads of central Delhi, I never thought tamarind leaves could be cooked with pork. One of our favourite pastimes was to pluck tamarind leaves and chew them raw. The taste was deliciously tart and bitter — and it came back to me when I tried the tamarind leaf chilli pork chop that the chef had put on the table. The leaves gave the pork just the right tangy taste that it needed.

Like the pork, there were quite a few dishes that I still remember fondly. One was a salad of smoked hilsa flakes, served with sweet baby leaves of lal saag and salty cubes of Bandel cheese and a delicious prawn malai curry cooked with pui saag and served with appams.

The chef’s innovative ways of cooking with greens underline the fact that the leaves — once the food of the poor, and now of the health- conscious — can add to the flavour of anything from pork and prawns to lamb and fish. Time was when saag meant a dish of coarsely ground greens, occasionally blended well, tempered with a few spices.

But over the years, I have seen the humble saag change forms. Saags became a part of the pakora platter with fried spinach leaves, and then got included in chaat and papri. With the mushrooming of Chinese restaurants, the phrase crispy fried spinach was added to our food lexicon. And now we are talking about mooli patta saag haleem — which is one of chef Dewan’s most creative dishes of meat and crushed wheat cooked together and tempered with radish leaves.

Chef Dewan tells me that he had to source his greens from little known vegetable sellers catering to the poor. I understand that, for Delhi’s weekly haats — mostly patronised by those who don’t shop in departmental stores — are full of greens that we never consider as food. Now, inspired by the chef, I have been adding greens to my dishes. I must say it’s opened up a new world altogether. It’s green, and it’s good.

Mooli saag pesto with spinach pane

(serves 3 to 4)

Ingredients: •200g mooli saag • 4 cloves garlic •30g pine nuts •50ml extra virgin olive oil • 50g Parmesan cheese • salt to taste • juice of 1-2 lemons • black pepper to taste

Ingredients for spinach pane: l• 250g refined flour • 3g yeast • 20ml olive oil • 4g salt • 2g sugar • 5-6 shredded spinach leaves •100ml cold water

Method:

For the pesto: Clean and remove the stalks of the saag and tear the leaves roughly into small pieces. In a food processor mince the garlic and pine nuts together. Add the saag and olive oil in a gradual stream to the mixture in the processor. While still coarse, add the grated Parmesan cheese to it. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice.

For the pane: Sift the flour and dissolve it in water with yeast, sugar, salt and olive oil. Knead into a ball of soft dough and set aside for 3-4 hours. Mix with the shredded spinach leaves and roll out into thin sheets. Put the sheets in a wood fired pizza oven for 3 minutes at about 250°C till crisp. Serve warm with the cold mooli saag pesto.

Grilled tuna steak with stir fried kalmi leaves

(serves 3)

Ingredients:

• 3 tuna steaks of about 150g each • 20ml olive oil • salt to taste • 5g crushed pepper • juice of 2 lemons • 3-4 cloves of chopped garlic •1 bunch kalmi leaves • 10ml light soya • 20g toasted white sesame seeds

Method:

Pat dry the steak and season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and oil. Keep marinated for about an hour in the refrigerator. Wash the water morning glory leaves and cut the large pieces into smaller ones. Grill the tuna steak till rare-medium done (or as per preference). Heat a wok and sauté the chopped garlic. Toss in the leaves and cook on a high flame for half a minute till the leaves begin to wilt. Season with light soya and top with toasted sesame seeds. Serve with the grilled tuna steak.

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