Monday, August 01, 2011

(Mis)Adventures in the Kitchen

Apparently, there is more to being a stay at home mom than just staying at home. You have to obsess about their friends, spend some quality time with them, personally drop and pick them up from school and when you get some time off from all that, you have to morph into a veritable Julia Child and serve up nutritious, delicious, home-cooked meals too. (I would have said  Nigella Lawson, but I am just not feeling that sexy these days)

Now for some history. I do not cook, never did, never felt the need to. My mom, who worked full time, was an infrequent cook and when she did enter the kitchen, it was usually to whip out one of her recipe books and carefully follow their instructions to bake us a cake or cook a Chinese meal. Cooking was not big in her scheme of things and I was not expected to learn to cook while I was growing up either. My paternal grandmother tried to get me to learn because it was unthinkable to her that a girl not know how to cook. I told her I'd be willing to learn if my brother learnt alongside... so nothing came of that.

Once I moved away from home and started working, I was lucky enough to always be in Mumbai and have very reliable maids. My contribution to the kitchen stopped at buying groceries and giving instructions on what was to be prepared. I cooked very occasionally and it was an 'event' that involved identifying recipes, shopping for exotic ingredients (which got tossed after one use because they rotted before they were so much as looked at again) and clearing all other plans for the evening. This didn't change with motherhood either - I saw my job as making sure my kids ate healthy, tasty food - being their personal chef was not in the job description, as far as I was concerned.

And then we moved to Hyderabad and my luck ran out. I have managed to find a part-time cook and her cooking is pretty decent but she thinks nothing of playing hooky without so much as a moment's notice. The first few times that she didn't show up I just packed the kids into the car and took them out for lunch. But after a point, it seemed a bit excessive. I mean, you can take pride in outsourcing food when you are a working mom and don't have the time or bandwith to take on kitchen duties. But as a stay at home mom, rushing to a restaurant or the take-out folder at the drop of a hat seems kind of erm... lazy.

So, I decided to pull up my proverbial socks and learn how to cook. And it's been an interesting journey so far. I have been trying my hand at simple stuff like dals and sabzis but also experimenting with somewhat more exotic stuff from cookbooks and various food blogs.

For starters, I have set myself really low benchmarks. If the kids eat it without a fuss, I count it as a success. And I have to say the kids have been real troopers - they have eaten everything from slimy bhindi (how was I supposed to know bhindi goes to hell when water is added to it), overdone dal and undercooked potatoes. Their unwavering unfussiness has kept me going, otherwise I would have thrown in the towel and run screaming towards the takeout menus weeks ago.

 My biggest saviour has been this book - The First Time Cookbook. I picked it up on a whim years ago and have hardly looked at it since. But it really is a fantastic book and I could not recommend it more for those looking to make their first forays into the world of Indian cooking. It teaches you things most cookbooks assume you already know like what vessels to buy, shopping for and storing vegetables, meat and spices and most importantly the authors do away with the most confusing of instructions 'Add salt to taste' and tell you exactly how much to add. Its first recipe is a foolproof method for making plain rice, it covers all dals, details a foolproof and easy method to set your own curds and even has instructions for boiling an egg. It is as if someone wrote a cookbook after looking into my head and knowing what I'd need if I ever decided to enter the kitchen. With its help, I can now at least put together a basic meal. I have even experimented with somewhat advanced stuff from the book like matar paneer and dum aloo with reasonable success (which, like I said, simply means that the kids ate it)

The other book I have really been enjoying cooking from has been chef Ritu Dalmia's The Italian Khana. This book is the polar opposite of the previous book in terms of ease of use. The ingredients can be hard to find, the instructions can assume a level of foreknowledge that a novice cook might not possess and the recipes are laid out in a confusing manner - instead of chapters on soups, starters, main courses and desserts, her book is divided into sections like 'Cooking with Friends', 'Showing off', and 'Cooking for the Beloved'. Not everything in the book is easy to cook and there have been some not-so-great meals as a result (the kids still ate them though - you see what I mean about them being troopers) but I have learnt some useful stuff. Her recipes for tomato sauce and pesto are very doable, so no more store-bought stuff for our pastas.

I have also been trying my hand at baking cakes. My target is to bake at least one cake or batch of cookies a week so Ayaan gets home-made goodies in his school tiffin. Until recently, all my baking was done in my microwave, which happens to have a convection cooking option as well but it does have its limitations - the cakes don't taste as good and you can basically only use round cake tins. So I went ahead and invested in the Morphy Richards OTG (Oven-Toaster-Grill). So far, the results have been mixed. The first two things (an applesauce cake and chocolate chip cookies) I attempted to bake in it were burnt even though I followed the instructions to a T. In fact, the recipe for the choco-chip cookies was from the cookbook that came with the oven! And when I baked a batch with the same batter in my microwave, those came out just fine. However, the chocolate cake I baked in the oven came out perfect. Very confusing.

Not including the baking, I try and cook at least twice a week irrespective of the maid's absenteeism. Since I want to master the process as a whole, I do everything required to put the dish on the table, including chopping the vegetables, which I could easily outsource to the cook or the full-timer. This takes me a-g-e-s and my fingers and nails are full of scrapes; it's a miracle I haven't done any serious injury to myself.

I am slow in many other ways as well. I can't multi-task for peanuts. I need to make one dish at a time and as a result, I need to spend at least two hours in the kitchen to put together a relatively simple meal. I also completely lack instinct when it comes to cooking so I look for recipes which tell me exactly how much of stuff to add and when to assume that the dish in question is done. I'd like to think I will one day get to a point when I can effortlessly thrown some random ingredients into a dish without looking at a recipe book or using my measuring cups and produce something delicious. I don't know if that day will ever come, though I do know it is not likely any time in the near future.

The fringe benefit of cooking regularly is that I am loving the way my kitchen looks. It has never been this clean or well-organsied. In Mumbai, my cook had a free run of the place and while she churned out yummy stuff, she tended to be messy and had her own way of putting stuff away. It was often impossible for me to locate stuff on my own and other than the occasional cleaning drives, I pretty much let her do her own thing. Now, everything is spic and span and I know down to the last container where everything is. It is strangely satisfying.

So that, in short, is the story of my initial forays into the kitchen. From being something that I detested, I now find the task of cooking fairly tolerable and depending on what I am making, even enjoyable. Let's see what the future brings.