food

The birth of a Chef

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The first  ever meal I cooked was a total disaster. Ok, disaster is probably an understatement. But it was absolutely inedible. So much so, that I had to bribe the waste bin to devour it. The year was 2006 and I had just moved to the UK to pursue my Masters degree. Though I’d been away from home for almost five years at that point, I had been fortunate enough to have had plenty of affordable takeaways near where I stayed. Which meant, I'd never had to cook. Moving abroad was an eye-opener in more ways that one. But that’s a topic for another day. Today it’s all about my tryst with cooking.  

Here’s a bit of a flashback into how much I knew about cooking back then. Something as simple as cooking rice was beyond me. The monstrous pressure cooker scared me (To be honest, it continues to haunt me even today, especially when I'm caught off guard by the howling whistle). Spluttering mustard seeds spooked the beejeezus out of me. I didn’t know that one should never pour oil into a hot pan that contained droplets of water. I even gave up drinking coffee and tea when I  moved from home, in the fear that I would burn the house down, if I had tried. In retrospect, I blame my mom. Though she was really forward-thinking in most aspects, she still refrained from asking the men of the house for any kind of assistance in the kitchen. And my father, foodie though he is, his association with food both starts and ends at the dining table. So I suppose it should come as no surprise, that I didn't know a thing about cooking.

 

However when I landed in the UK, in the quaint little seaside town of Brighton, which essentially was a student hub, I had no choice but to start cooking. Or rather acquire the skill of cooking. Now I’ve always been intrigued by the art of cooking. It all started off when my almost-similar age cousin started showing off his culinary skills. Everytime we visited their home, he would whip up tasty dishes. So, by peer-pressure, I decided to do some research into this. Back then, I was still at school, and living with my parents in Dubai. The Friday newspaper was always accompanied by a free Lifestyle magazine, coincidentally titled “Friday”. And they had a food section, spread across four pages, filled with mouth-watering images of glorious food. And they were all mostly international cuisines. Now, though I was born and brought up in a multi-cultural society such as Dubai, our “international food experiments” ended with pizzas and shawarmas. Apart from that, it was mostly Indian cuisine. So these brilliant food images with their fancy names intrigued me to no end. But here was the problem - I was more inclined to devour them, rather than actually attempt making them.

 

There was actually another reason as to why I experimented with cooking while in Brighton. My lovely wife, JP, (who was then my girlfriend) was also pursuing her Masters degree in the same university. And me being the hapless romantic that I was (influenced by a lot of rom-com movies and chick-lit books), decided that it would be the ultimate romantic gesture to cook her a lovely meal. Once again, though I have repeatedly said that I was forced to learn the skill of cooking,  the reality was I still had it relatively easy - because JP is (and always has been) a fantastic cook. In retrospect, an attempt to impress JP with my cooking skills, when I had a total of zero hours cooking experience, was always going to have a not-so-good ending. Whilst I am not going to go into a step-by-step listing of my disastrous culinary steps, I will say this. What I had originally conceived in my mind to be a romantic dinner of fried rice and cauliflower manchurian, ended up as an out-on-the-porch dinner with cups of instant noodles doused in pickle (yes, we still retained our Indian-ness) and chilli ketchup. Not quite as planned, but romantic nevertheless.

 

That evening was single-handedly the biggest contributing factor to me picking up the knives, spatula and saucepan with a view to at least master the art of cooking a decent enough meal. Some famous person once said that “In the journey of self-discovery, it is important to identify what stage you’re at presently”. Now, for me, that stage was quite evident - I still had miles to go before I could even climb a single rung on the culinary ladder. Though the realisation was a bitter pill to swallow, it helped me let go of my inhibitions and awakened me to the fact that I was indeed, an abysmal cook.

 

Being a bibliophile, I naturally assumed that cookbooks would be my first source of guidance in my culinary journey. Boy, was I wrong. Even the famed “Cooking basics for Dummies” didn’t help much, as I succumbed under the pressure imposed by the super-villains for the culinary world  - the “I-can-make-anyone-cry” onion, the “I-am-both-firm-and-squishy” tomato and “I-am-unbelievably-hot” chilli. Soon, I bundled up all the cookbooks that I had so gleefully borrowed from the library and returned them. Being an avid believer in the fact that technology has the answer to almost everything, I decided to befriend two new partners - Google and YouTube. Since I’d already discovered that cookbooks were not for me, I decided against reading the recipes. Instead, I watched clips of talented chefs using their magical knife skills and brilliant taste palettes to create some formidable dishes. After weeks of unsuccessful practice sessions, cut fingers and burnt hands, I was still no where closer to being able to put a single dish on the table. And that’s when I decided to swallow my pride and place myself under the tutelage of JP.

 

And on one cold winter afternoon, JP and I, embarked on a culinary journey, that would change my very outlook on cooking. I soon learnt how to skillfully use the basic kitchen tools without cutting myself in the process, how to identify what combination of vegetables worked well together and mastered the art of using spices judiciously. Within months, I successfully delivered my first complete Indian meal. Ok, so I still didn’t know how to make chapattis. But I assure you, my mutter paneer was spot on.

 

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Soon, we started taking turns in the kitchen and my cooking became the talk of the town. Well, ok, not the town, but it did gain some popularity amongst fellow students. However my culinary journey felt incomplete. From not knowing how to cook rice to frequently delivering above-average dishes, my culinary skills had definitely improved. But in my heart, I knew that I wouldn’t be happy until I was able to successfully re-create at least one of those international dishes that I had read about, years ago, in that lifestyle magazine.

 

That’s when JP & I discovered the Food Channel. The Food Channel took us right out of our living rooms and placed us alongside (albeit virtually) culinary legends such as Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre-White, Rick Stein and many others. It also opened our eyes to the world of culinary competitions such as MasterChef and the Great British Bake Off. There started our love story with cooking, and there’s been no looking back.

 

Before I wrap up, here are some of my sample dishes:

 

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You’re probably wondering what madness coerced me into rambling about my trysts with cooking. Actually, it was a Project 365 prompt. The prompt was : "Teachable moments -You have to learn a new skill. Do you prefer to read about it, watch someone else do it, hear someone describe it, or try it yourself?”. And as you can see, I pretty much did all of it before I was eventually able to add “cooking” as a skill to my repertoire . Featured image: http://www.morguefile.com/creative/Seemann

Christmas in a glass

Okay, so this really isn’t a “post” post. It’s a food post. Rather a drink post, if you will. But after all, it is Christmas. And keeping in mind the “spirit of Christmas”, I felt I should share a quick fire recipe for one of the “spirits” of Christmas - Mulled Wine. My first tryst with mulled wine was about five Christmases before, at my wife’s office party. Needless to say, I was hooked from the very first sip. If I were to describe the feeling, I’d say it is “warm and fuzzy”, and hence a perfect drink for the cold weather.

Now, mulled wine is a warm drink which is traditionally as Christmassy (is that a word?) as Egg-Nog. And it can be both alcoholic or non-alcoholic (it depends on the wine). Now, in most Western countries, mulled wine is available as a bottled product across the counters. However, nothing beats a good home-brewed mulled wine. So here’s the quick recipe for it. Oh, and for the purpose of the post, I’ll spare you the trouble and advise you to buy a bottle of red-wine, rather than make it.

It goes without saying that the taste for wine is usually acquired. You have to sample them, and let your taste buds get accustomed to the flavours that characterise the wine. Although the same goes for mulled wine, it's rapid acceptance is mainly due to the right blend of spices and sweetness.

Equip yourself with:

  • A bottle of Italian medium-bodied red wine. If you can’t find it or need suggestions, I’d say Zinfandel, Merlot, Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon). I personally prefer merlot for this. Sometimes Shiraz can work as well because of the “berry” flavours

  • Couple of Oranges or Clementines. Keep one of them whole. The others can be cut. Use more if you’d like a more tangy flavour. I’d say two is a good number

  • Lemon x 1; Again you can use more, if you need the tangy and sour feel. But I’d recommend to use just 1

  • Cloves x 20 buds

  • Cinnamon sticks; I’d say 5 pieces should suffice

  • A small piece of ginger. It’s not mandatory if you don’t like the taste

  • A handful of raisins

  • Sugar to taste

Optional extras:

Vanilla Pod Star Anise Nutmeg (Needs to be whole, as it will need to be grated) This should ideally take about 10 minutes of preparation and 20 minutes on the stove

How to: 

  1. The best way to reduce the spiciness of the cloves is to stick them into “whole” orange. The rest of the oranges and lemon(s) can be cut into quarters and kept aside.

  2. Pre-heat a reasonable sized saucepan to medium heat. Add the whole clove-infused orange along with the rest of the orange and lemon pieces to the saucepan. Mix the cinnamon sticks, ginger, raisins and any left over cloves with the orange and lemon pieces.

  3. As soon as they start to slightly sizzle (which will take no more than 30 seconds to a minute), pour half the bottle of wine over this fruit and spice mixture. Just pour enough wine to cover the mixture. It’s important to create a syrupy base first. If you add the full bottle of wine, you would have burned off a lot of the alcohol content.

  4. Make sure the saucepan is on medium heat. Once you start to see a bit of steam rising, add the sugar.  I’d say use 6-8 teaspoons of sugar. You can add more slightly later. Give this a good stir, to ensure it mixes well. If  you do need to add the vanilla pod, star anise and nutmeg, this is the ideal time to do so.

  5. Reduce the hear to low and let the wine simmer. After about 5 minutes, you should start to see bubbles forming and more steam rising. Stir well and then leave on the low heat for about 10-15 minutes, for the flavours to infuse.

  6. After about 15 minutes, take a taste and if it is still too acidic for you, add a few more spoons of sugar. Add the rest of the wine and simmer it for about 5 more minutes.

  7. Once you’re relatively happy with the taste, take it off the heat and leave it aside to cool for a bit. Remember, mulled wine is a drink that’s best served warm or hot, so don’t let it cool down a lot. Carefully remove all the large pieces of fruits and other spices into a large bowl. Then empty the liquid wine onto the bowl as well.

  8. Using a sieve, carefully ladle out the wine into glasses which can withstand the heat. Add a cinnamon stick, some orange zest (and cherries if you have them), and you’re done.

Image courtesy TripAdvisor

There you go; You’ve just been served Christmas in a glass :)

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Kid’s Nutrition, No More A Frustration! - An info graphic look

As you may know, I also contribute bi-monthly to this amazing parenting website community known as "Parentous". Follow this link to know more about them. The team at Parentous have been kind enough to utilise my article titled "Eight simple rules" (Link here) and develop a creative info-graphic based on the same. I'm proud and honoured to be able to share this with you today:

Kid’s Nutrition, No More A Frustration!

Thank you Team Parentous :)

Eight Simple Rules

To start of, apologies in advance if this sounds like a “Mommy” post. It might appear so primarily, due to two reasons:

  1. It is often perceived that this topic is “usually” a mother’s concern;
  2. This post is really inspired by the missus’s (let’s call her Ja) continued attempts to try and get our 18 month old (let’s call him … say Ri) to eat good nutritious food
If I could tag people as on Twitter or Facebook, a lot of my fellow Parentous contributors would be the recipients of thank you notes, for having inadvertently inspired me to touch this topic – unfortunately, I can’t seem to find such an option; So here’s a big fat Thank You  – you know who you are!

This post was originally published on the parenting blog "Parentous". For the complete list of our "Eight Simple Rules" to feeding your toddler, just click on the link : Eight Simple Rules @ Parentous