Friday, September 8, 2017

Kitchen - playground, rules & discipline.

Like reading, cooking was something that I started doing only when I started work. Of course, this was also the same time I started to eat out a lot. Like many in the internet age, I would go on to "rate" the food at restaurants, judge the food at my cafeteria, give my 2 cents on what could have been done better, or why it was better. Sure, I was entitled to having an opinion - it was like a customer review. But, I've also come across many situations where I would have thought, "Well, let's see you try it."

Work got me to Baroda, then to Chandigarh and later to Nagpur. During these periods, I got to try out many restaurants with a mix of local and foreign cuisines on the tables. I instantly fell in love with pasta, and I found out it was ridiculously simple to make. I appetite was so deep into the tandoori cuisine, it was a culture shock when I moved out of Punjab. The food fare at Baroda is brilliant. Albeit costlier, Nagpur can keep your taste buds dancing. I had the privilege to be in and around such wonderful places to be exposed to such a variety of cuisines. And because I still had some time to spare, I wanted to try cooking them up myself.

Many don't include it, but cooking is an art. It is an art that feeds you and keeps you going whether or not you acknowledge it as art. It must be an art of science. You can explain all the cooking methods in terms of science. So, you can rave about it or nerd about it too.

For the first time, I picked up that pack of pasta shells and salsa that seemed invisible to me till then. Oh, there is a "red" sauce, a "white" sauce, a "green" sauce... What do I do? (Now, I've gone a little better than the colours to Arrabbiata (Also, Napoletana), Alfredo, Pesto, and the rest.) I loved the "red" one, and started to cook them almost once a week, adding in whatever vegetable I could find that could fit into a bowl of pasta. I tried out myriad types of pasta shells, different makes of ready-made sauces on the market shelves. I also had a sandwich maker which hosted a whole other line of experimenting. Sometimes, I would mix the two, wherein the pasta would go inside the sandwich. Ten points to Gryffindor.

Spaghetti Aglio e olio,
learnt on Laura In The Kitchen
My favourite pasta - Penne Arrabbiata

All this was done simply following instructions on the packs. Boil the pasta and strain them away; fry the vegetables; add the salsa; add the pasta, cheese, seasoning - your pasta is ready! I thought I could start from a level earlier - from the raw materials, cutting down on the processed food. This is when I started watching more of cooking shows on TV. Carnival Eats is one of my favourites. Carvinals are where you would find the wildest and most innovative things to eat. I picked up a few off the show to try them out. I remember watching an episode where a Greek sold fried tomato balls at a fair. "Yaya's Tomato balls". The next day, I walked a mile to the store to get all the ingredients from the store and sat all afternoon in the kitchen preparing the ingredients and hen frying it up and tasting it for myself. Though not an exact replica against what I saw on the show, the taste was very good, and as described! (I am unable to find a video of the episode or the clip online in India)

The levels keep getting tougher. I was in awe when I watched Gordon Ramsay cool-ly make gnocchi. When I tried to replicate, I had burnt one side of a whole batch. I have had a thousand pizzas, but I found making pizzas incredibly hard. There is a fine line between a pizza base and a paratha. I was spellbound when I read what seemed to be an oxymoron on the menu - "fried ice cream". It took 3 whole days to work and prepare the balls of ice cream before we could fry them.

They are all so tough, and that is why cooking, for me, is so much fun. When we made pizzas, I decided to make everything from scratch. We tried this and that and got the base right only the third time we baked it. But the salsa came out so beautifully right, I was happy for myself. The first fried ice cream ball started to leak in the pan and we literally had fried vanilla cream in the fry pan. But the second one was whole and round when it came out. It was beautiful to see a cold ball of ice cream waiting for you inside a crisp, hot cover of fried batter.
From our first batch of pizzas
The first good fried ice-cream

After all this, I came to terms with the fact that it takes a lot of dedication and concentration to get your output right. You have no idea what the food is going to taste like when you are cooking. I think the salt is enough, but the chole bhaat tastes bland and when I try to add a bit I end up over-compensating. When my mother makes sambar, she adds precise amounts of tumeric, masala (not ready-made!!), tamarind, salt, grams without measuring any of them. As long I can remember, it has always tasted wonderful.

At places of work, we stay at hostels and the cooks there are the same. In the one off time something goes wrong, they know where and what went wrong and make sure they avoid the mistake. And when I am cooking, they stand by me and teach me how to do it right. Once, I tried to make aloo tikki and the tikki would stick to the fry pan. In five minutes, the cook taught me what I should have done to the potato mix to prevent this. They also helped solve all my burning onion problems. They also taught me how to cut vegetables, how hot the pans need to be, how much is too much, and what I could do to get a different result. But, you know what I loved the most? When they eat what I made - whatever I made - and tell me I did well. If this gave me something to smile one day in a week, why can't I make their life cheerful, 7 days a week? All I have to tell them is "Thanks, I loved the dinner tonight." with a smile.
Electric Oven made Tandoori vegetables,
because I had a weekend to kill
All this has taught me some discipline.
Cooking is not easy. Maybe, no trade is easy. It is hard work to do anything, let alone create a piece of art.
In retrospect, we know everything that could have been; but live life in the present.
You need help, and don't be afraid to ask - a wonderful chole bhaat tastes much better than one with deep fried roasted, toasted onions.
I need to be in time, else the kitchen wouldn't be available for my needs. If I'm late, the cook would pleasingly tell me, "kal" (tomorrow).
Don't assume others don't know anything, don't assume you know everything. I was making pasta for the first time, and the kitchen staff didn't know what "pasta" was. But, I show them the shells and they smile, "Macaroni!!", and instantly they told me how they used to make it.
When not everything fits in, learn to improvise. When we were short of ingredients, we would add whatever was available locally. Sometimes, potatoes are all that are available. Hola, Hasselback Potatoes! Olive oil? What olive oil?
Share, and spread the smile. I once asked a colleague to bring me a bottle of mayonnaise and he asked me what I was going to do with it, because I wasn't eating the bread that was locally available. I made and sent him half a bottle of Salsa Bravas. I got another bottle of mayo soon.

If I haven't stressed it enough already - cooking is fun! And it doesn't just stop with the food. I am drawn into learning more about it. I learnt to make cajun spice mix, and then I found out where it came from. Same with salsa bravas. The history of pizzas is mouth watering. Did you know Hasselback Potatoes are named so only because they were first made in a motel named Hasselbacken? You ask any foodie to talk about the food they know and you will want time to stop. I guess, I'm much more mature when I taste something at a restaurant and want to comment. I am more likely to know how it was prepared than me telling them how to. More things taste nice now.

I wouldn't have gotten into cooking had it not been for family and friends who got me doing this, encouraged me, showed me new places, exposed me to new cuisines, and mostly had fun during the process. Some have taught me, some gave me tips, some sent in ideas, and some would risk their appetite to taste what I had made for the first time! So, here is a big thank you for that, and more! There are so many of them who inspire me to go into the kitchen and cook something up!

Hasselback Potatoes
A friend nudged me into making
"chapati" Bombay sandwich. Much fun!

Monday, February 13, 2017

When I had coffee.

There are some people who appear out of nowhere, interrupt your way of life and change it for the better with their kindness, love and affection - not by intent, but by nature. They are indifferently kind to everybody, by way of life. The utter sense of calmness on their face is infectious. The conversations are relaxed, connecting and almost as if we have been friends for a long time. There is nothing but love and respect for them all.

I don't drink coffee. I can't put a finger on what puts me off, but I don't drink that beverage. My parents gulp filter coffee numerous times a day, and almost every other leaf in my family tree does so too. I have rocked people off their chair when they come to know that this (so called) South Indian fellow doesn't drink coffee. 

But, I've had coffee. Thrice, maybe four times. Why? Kindness. It is not about the coffee, but the people who have been able to make me have a cup of coffee.

The most recent one was two months ago. I met this gentleman at work, let's call him Mr. M. M was an old and wrinkled man. He took short, slow steps and scanned everything till the horizon in a calm but absorbing gaze. He would talk in a slow, low, kind voice - like a grandfather talking to his little grandchild. He had come the site on duty, and invited met to his office. The meeting might have lasted fifteen minutes. Or an hour. It was hard to tell. This gentleman, who had never spoken to me before, took me under his wing and shared work experience (he had more than 40 years of it, spread across almost all continents, and many fields), advice, and bucket loads of information that would come in handy for anybody. It wasn't all one way traffic either. He asked me for views, inputs and feedback. He could barely walk, through age and illness, but the childlike enthusiasm would win that battle.

When we were about to go out for an inspection, he offered me a cup of coffee. "Bharath, you must have coffee with me." I smiled, took the offer, and drank the coffee. He made such a kind offer, I wouldn't refuse.

We spoke twice since. In both those conversations, his humility and kindness were transparent in the way he punctuated his requests with "Sorry to have disturbed you." (he is more than twice as old as I am) and my replies with "Thank you so much!"

Mr. M passed away yesterday. He waged a long battle against cancer.

The world is one gentleman lesser today. He will be missed.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ignore, please.

I recently read a book by Dave Gorman - Too Much Information, where the author talks of the many places in the modern age where there is just "too much" thrown at your face - in print, digital, television etc - in advertisements, music, branding, marketing etc. The idea, under the layer of their primary reasons, is that with more information thrown at you, the less likely you will find the truth.

We are also prey to other kinds of excess. We live in an age that reeks of social media, in one form or another. Every app that you download on your mobile phone wants access to all the information stored on your phone. Every place you shop wants you to sign up with them - email, phone, address, age, favourite cartoon. Social media platforms want to know your date of birth, place of birth, birth marks, star sign, favourite cartoon. I love The Popeye Show to bits, but I don't want to share that with "everybody" everybody.


The worst kind of excess is when you are on one of those social media, and let's say you are active on it. You are bombarded with so many things, SO so many things, that you are overwhelmed with what is going around in the world. I don't have a problem with this. These are the people we chose to hear from. There is a sense of being slightly left out, sometimes, in not knowing what other people are talking about - and you have to watch videos and read blogs to figure out what it is. I have a problem with this.

We are all unique (just like everyone else. tee hee). So, why not just be so. I have my set of likes and dislikes and I would love to stay in my cocoon and be respected for it. I sure should not feel any peer pressure to try to everything that others are doing, this is not a rat race, this shouldn't be a rat race. So, I am very sorry I don't have an opinion on who should win the USA election (definitely not Trump, though), who enraged whom in the parliament, or the other accident that took place on the highway somewhere in some place. They are all important, to some people, at some point of time; but not totality. I can only be an expert or knowledgeable in just so many subjects.

There is a sense of discomfort, anger too, when someone does not replicate interests. There are no healthy competitions anymore, no discussions - just violent, vocal arguments. Like a stand-up comedian put up on a video blog, "If I say I am a dog person, I get comments 'F*** you, you cat hater.'" I always wake up to one horde brandishing a media entity over something that they said 5 years ago, or calling names over a politician. I am not saying the target is innocent, but there are methods. Maybe?

With the tools of social media, one can be as authoritative as their keyboard and internet space can allow them to be. We are probably yet to define ethics and etiquette for such media of communication. (I know for a fact that I am not the same person in reality, as I seem on such online media, however hard I try to.) What you write on, say, twitter, gets interpreted in 10 different ways and you have 2 people supporting you, 4 people calling you names, 2 thinking you are an idiot and the others ignoring your presence. There is no way you can say anything diplomatic here, ask Harsha Bhogle. You may show respect to women, or look like you were being cheesy - depends on how one sees it.

A bit of the same also carries over to life offline, too. People tend to get flak for being different, doing different, liking different. If you love what you do, some of this can be tolerated and ignored. The "different" factor is what is going to separate you from the run-of-the-mill kind. Twitter was overwhelming at first because there were so many kind of people I didn't know about (which is kind of hard to come across offline). Respecting others for their uniqueness is the least you can do to bond, and maybe both of you will benefit from it some day. That's better than trying to enforce your idea on another('s).

I choose to ignore as much noise as I can. If you have cute cat videos, something to do with sports, or something nice to try out in the kitchen, or maybe even a movie, I am all ears. Else, I would prefer to recline into my seat, read the book in hand (it helps, because I am a very slow reader) while you try to finish your cacophony. If you choose to decipher that as arrogance, sure you can - I am going to ignore that too.
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you is the greatest accomplishment.
- Ralphy Waldo Emerson, essayist

Monday, January 25, 2016

My Sandwich Chronicle

I bought a grilled sandwich maker recently, and my trips to the kitchen have been twice as fun ever since. Just so I don't forget, this is the list of the sandwiches that I have made with it thus far (hopefully I update it over time.)

Do suggest your sandwich recipes that I can try out

1. Tomato - onion - capsicum grilled cheese (ft. ketchup, chili flakes, oregano)

2. Tomato - onion - capsicum grilled (avoided cheese, because breakfast)

3. Spaghetti Arrabbiata - onion grilled sandwich (essentially under the grilled cheese s/w umbrella, given that I sprayed the cheese into the pasta first. Note: I <3 arrabbiata="" p="" salsa="">
Spaghetti Arrabbiata in a s/w
4. Capsicum - onion - carrots grilled cheese (ft. ketchup, green chili sauce)

5. Tomato - onion - capsicum - red bell pepper - corn grilled cheese (ft. ketchup, green chili sauce)

Left: Tomato - onion - capsicum - red bell pepper - corn
Pineapple - black raisins - corn grilled cheese
6. Pineapple - black raisins - corn grilled cheese (this is currently my favourite, because a heavy risk paid off)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Patatas Bravas

I came across this Spanish dish, Patatas Bravas, when I was watching something on youtube. It seemed complicated, but doable - in just the right proportion to capture my attention. I have since been wanting to try this out, and I finally made it today.

Salsa Bravas
Patatas Bravas, literally translated means "brave potatoes", but actually mean "fierce potatoes". It is a starter, and is a simple two fold process - salsa and the fries.

I watched and read a few recipes for this dish and found they have been customized mildly, but the core is the same - a tomato based spicy salsa. I used 3 red tomatoes, medium in size (medium as per Indian sizing), cut them into eights and dropped them into a blender cup. On a frying pan, with only a tsp or so of oil, fry chopped onions and garlic for a minute or so, turn off the flame and then add them to the tomatoes. Also add 2 green chilis, chopped (it doesn't matter much, we will be blending them soon) a couple of tsp of powdered red paprika / red chili powder. Add a pinch of sugar and a little bit of salt. Then, add two spoon-scoops of mayonnaise to it. Close the lid of the blender cup and blend the ingredients until you see a thick paste with no solid lumps. Taste the salsa and check if the heat is as per your taste. The salsa looks beautiful - the mayo lends a white shade to the red tomatoes and paprika, so the final result is a bit creamy looking; and the taste is spicy hot, you can see the heat. You can now refrigerate the salsa until you need it.

For the fries, it is intended to spice up the potatoes as early as possible. Take a sufficient water in a heating vessel to hold the potatoes you plan to use. Bring the water to simmering heat (but not a boil). Add red chili/paprika powder to the water and then put in the potatoes (unpeeled) and let them soak in the simmering water for 20 minute. Now, turn off the flame, remove the potatoes and peel them. I found this part tough, as I am used to peeling boiler potatoes - easy as. These are tough, be careful not to mash them if you are using a peeler. Cut the potatoes into bite size cubes. Take generous amount of oil in a fry pan and bring it to a med-high heat. Deep fry the potatoes in batches until they turn golden brown and are penetrable through a now crispy surface. Remove them from the oil onto paper towels to soak the excess oil. The outsides are crispy, slightly brownish and the insides are soft. If the cubes are very big, the insides come out hard. Sprinkle some salt over them once the oil wears off.

When all batches are done, transfer them on to a serving plate, hot. From what I have seen/read, the salsa is randomly poured over the plate of fries - just enough to top each potato fry in an imperfect manner, but not too much as to soak the potatoes in the salsa - and served to be eaten with the help of toothpicks. I served the salsa in a separate cup for each to pour in as much as s/he wishes. Patatas Bravas, ready.

You can feel the softness of the fries with the toothpick, the crunch is coated with the salsa dip which is spicy hot. It seems to be a nice party snack, a starter. It gets over in a jiffy, too. The heat also would bode well during the winter, I guess. Only 20 % of the salsa that I prepared got consumed today - I had used 4 medium sized (Indian) potatoes for the fries. The rest of it is back into the refrigerator and we plant to consume it along with the parathas, idlis and dosas during breakfast.

Notes: The sauce can be made well in advance and stocked, while you can make the fries when you want. So, in a way, you can make this in short notice (provided you have the salsa).
You can add the tomatoes to the pan while frying the onions/garlic, and saute for a short while before going to the blender.
Also, a couple of things that other recipes mentioned but I didn't have - vinegar, and tomato paste.
I ran out of garlic cloves, so I used a garlic-ginger paste instead. The ginger would be spicy, but will not lend to the heat.
Salsa Bravas might be a nice side to parathas, idlis, dosas because the spicy heat is kind of matches the purpose of chutneys that the mentioned Indian breakfasts go along well with. I have never had an idli with something that contains mayo, though. There is always a first time, like the first time I made Patatas Bravas.