Kitchens are busy spaces these days. In our Quarantined New World, it would seem everybody is cooking. Since eating pleasure can be consummated, maintaining safe distance at the site of pleasure (dining table) it’s currently trending in all homes.
But, a personal conundrum. What if you can’t cook? One worse. What if you don’t want to cook?
I mean, is it cataclysmic? Being a woman, a normal woman, and not loving to don the apron – for husband, kids, friends, yourself? Does every guy in the world love boxing? Not watching, but actually going out there in the ring?? That’s the bummer. I love eating but I’m the worst cook. My forays into the kitchen have always been misadventures. I touch hot vessels or drop them, set fire to the toast or do something equally inane. So as a rule, I don’t cook. It’s safer all around. How I’ve managed to get away with this calumny all these years is that there never was a lockdown in my human experience till now.
The virtual landscape has gone berserk. Strange, vivid, coral-shaped delicacies on porcelain plates are being served up on all my SM accounts. Foody art, that I the cranky one, can’t appreciate. Not generally a praise-niggard, but the point is all these sensational recipes are of no use to me, with nobody to cook them for me. Family and friends, well meaning I’m sure, who love posting and pushing their lockdown culinary-adventures onto me, are making me feel inadequate. It is something I never allow myself to feel – inadequate. So what is this?
About survival. The lockdown in Mumbai, locked down my helper-cook in her home and me in mine. Since this was not Harry Potter, there was no magical tunnel to whoosh her into my kitchen.
I have to eat. For that, I have to cook.
Ask me to go climb the Himalayas, but don’t ask me to cook was my smart line to anybody even trying. Then, my family, quite the emancipated sort, embraced my normal as theirs. And all was fine. Till the time the world changed to as it is now.
The self-quarantine has frozen combinations of people into staying and sheltering wherever they are, and my combination is my sister and me. She was over for a few days, (or so we thought), and is here two months and counting. And no, she does not cook. (Some gene throwback??)
In the first week it was not seismic. We had some ready meals stocked and some frozen food and when that got done, my daughter, living a little distance away, sent us some more. However, we understood this was not a wise way to stave off daily hunger in these cryptic times, and strict compliance of lockdown rules was an inviolable necessity.
So we shifted gear to ready-to-cook instant food like noodles and easy-to make grilled cheese sandwiches, and the like, and honored this fare, with steady stoicness. Who needs flamboyance in ascetic times? We sat at the table like two monks in deep silence. No words. We even summoned up gratitude. We had food on our plates. A shelter. What more could we ask for?
Some regular spicy good old Indian curry? And a traditional pilaf with veggies and cashews? And without being fussy, a side of fresh coriander chutney?
We craved away.
Then one fine day (after many days), the rumblings… We said Enough.
But now what??
I got my laptop. Googled – Easy Recipes (rice, potatoes, cottage cheese). Even in my state of pronounced culinary ignorance, I knew that these three were tacklable even by a greenhorn like me.
In fact, I had some experience too.
Once, long back, I had, in a rare moment of inspiration, opened a cookbook and prepared a dish of Dauphine Potatoes for my little kids. They felt a bit bemused about their mother not being like “other mothers” and to ease their angst, I emboldened myself one fine day.
My recipe: Dauphine Potatoes (simplified)
Parboil the potatoes, cut into thick wedges, (or flat round discs), put butter in the pan, toss in some crushed garlic, toss in the potato wedges or discs, keep turning over till golden brown, sprinkle some herbs, remove from fire, sprinkle ground black pepper, and serve with knobs of melting butter on top…(grated cheese optional) Hmm… even as I write this the seduction of the recipe is beginning to work upon me. A glimmer, very faint, of the possibility of conversion pokes me gently. Uhh? Is it the words, potato wedges, golden brown, knobs of melting butter, or the pictures they conjur, or what? Or is it just that I am so damn hungry?
They loved the dish.
Subsequently, the secret of Dauphine Potatoes was passed on to my helper-cook, and the dish has often graced our dining table.
Another time, when the cook played hooky, on a particularly hot summer’s day, (39 degrees celsius) I all askew, flung up my hands in a frenzy and said to my husband, “What to do??”
He grinned and said, “What others do. Cook.”
So I had a point to prove. Out came the cookbook and I homed in on the simplest cottage cheese recipe I could find.
My Recipe: Cottage cheese with onion and tomato (simplified)
Cut cottage cheese into cubes. Chop onions and tomatoes. Fry onions till brown. Toss in some crushed garlic and ginger. Add chopped tomatoes and stir awhile. Throw in spices, cumin seed powder, one cardamon, one green chilli, for pungency. Add salt, red chilli powder, mint powder, and turmeric powder and stir and mix well. Toss in the cottage cheese cubes. Mix till properly glazed. Voila. Good to go.
This too was a hit. The fam went overboard, and I guess they meant it, because the dish was scraped off to the tiniest morsel… I beamed and was not worried at my success, because my cook was scheduled to be back the next day.
Back to today, the scenario is stark. My cook is not scheduled to be back for who knows how long. And food has to be had and for that it has to be cooked – everyday.
I can’t cook, my sis can’t cook, even more than me, and though Swiggy is delivering, is it safe? Paranoia, both warranted and unwarranted, is on high sail these days.
So what?? Determination of course, (just-sprouted) and Google – to get us out of dysphoria.
I think of my husband. How he would have merrily donned the apron and the mantle of in-house cook for us. He, who ably made up for my singular lack of affection for kitchen skills, by picking up a fair amount of culinary knowledge along the way … He reckoned it would be needed. He even mastered the art of the brilliant first cup of morning tea which he made for us every single day…till he left. He must surely be chuckling from his Elysium groves watching me gear up for kitchen-combat – finally.
So it’s happening and my sis and I are peering into our laptop screens earnestly, searching out and ticking the simplest recipes we can find. The kind that are non-complex, non-scholarly, require minimal fuss – and are finger licking delish.
A journey of a thousand steps has begun and we have taken the first one.
Wish us luck.