When the world began sinking into the quicksand that is COVID-19, it became increasingly uncertain as to what the coming days would have in store for us. As a single man, who has lived alone for over 13 years, I wasn’t really perturbed about how I would get on during the lockdown. In fact, I’ve not had any domestic help even for several years now, so I am used to doing all my own household chores. As far as food goes, cooking was never a priority, since cooking for one was just too much of an effort. I’ve relied on takeout delivery and tiffin services, whether it’s been at home or office.
So when the lockdown drove people to throng at department stores and hoard groceries and supplies, I didn’t panic, considering I didn’t run an active kitchen. However, when my tiffin provider informed me that they were discontinuing service until further notice, and all these cautionary concerns about the sanitisation of delivery packages, etc, were being floated, I knew I needed a plan—one that would mean spending more time in the kitchen.
Discovering the basics
To put things straight, cooking is not as intimidating, as it looks like for amateur chefs, like me. I have managed to make a decent main course or some palatable pasta on occasion by following simple recipes. English breakfast—a platter of eggs, toast, baked beans, bacon, hash browns, grilled tomatoes—is always a nice and convenient brunch to put together. And does not need any culinary skills! So, a couple of things became my go-to during the lockdown. However, I knew I had to explore some daily Indian home-style cooking—the dals and the sabzis—which I’d never bothered with earlier to survive the extended lockdown sans any restaurant delivery or takeaways to the rescue. I could never make a proper chapati, but I had aced making basic white rice. So that’s where I started. I figured if I could just make something simple to go with that rice, I would be fine.
Dal seemed simple enough. I knew you’re supposed to boil it with water in a pressure cooker and season it with a tadka of spices fried in oil or ghee. So I bought some dal, but I didn’t know where to begin with the spices. Aside from cardamom, cinnamon, and cumin, I’m still not sure if I know which flavours come from which Indian spices. So I picked up the first ready-made spice-mix I came across. It was called ‘Instant Tadka’ and I saw it had asafoetida (heeng), which I remember being an essential in dal—as mentioned by my mother and my sister at some point. With other basics such as onions, garlic and tomatoes, I believed I was good to go. I brought the basics together and cooked the dal in them, added the tadka with the spice-mix and chillies, and it wasn’t half bad.
Trial and error
The next time, I thought of an easy egg curry. I made a curry with cooked onions, tomatoes, garlic, and the store-bought spice-mix and water, and threw in some boiled eggs. An egg curry was ready, yes, and it tasted alright, but the texture left much to be desired with a split between watery broth and a spiced-up onion mix. So I knew I had to do something different for thickness. Without cornflour or any other agent, or even a stick blender to blitz up the onions, I took to the good-old cheese grater. It was time-consuming alright, but the result was quite satisfactory. This time though, I cooked it with some chicken and potatoes, and what I got was actually a homogeneous curry that tasted quite nice. I made sure to divide the curry and cook the potatoes separately in the pressure cooker, because chicken can get overcooked and chewy if pressure-cooked, since it actually only needs a few minutes in a pan. I realised, sparing a few minutes to think about the ingredients made a huge difference to the cooking process.
While I tried such combinations and even cooked potatoes with dal—which almost gave it a sambhar-like feel—I craved for a change to jazz up the everyday meal. To keep things short and simple and without having to use too many pots and pans, this time, before adding rice to the pot, I tried frying garlic and chilli flakes in ghee that resulted in an aromatic and flavourful rice. Happy with my experiments, next, I tried tossing cooked rice in chopped tomatoes and green chillies and butter—and a simple but effective tomato rice was ready.
A comfort food that most of us go back to, pasta, is convenient and versatile. The simplest is of course an aglio-olio, where you just toss the pasta in garlic—aglio—and (olive) oil—olio. Then you can do pretty much anything with it. Throw in herbs—basil, parsley or oregano—and some chilli flakes for a more complex flavour. I even sautéed vegetables such as eggplant and mushrooms and mixed them in, but you could add chicken or prawns.
I did use chicken with a basic béchamel sauce. It sounds exotic but is simple enough to master. You melt butter in a pan, add flour as a thickening agent, and throw in grated cheddar and parmesan or some other cheese for more cheesiness. Then you add milk gradually to avoid lumps, and bring it to a consistency that pasta can be tossed in with. Again, you can mix in vegetables or some meat or even bacon. However, if you do have bacon, I’d save it for a carbonara. It sounds fancy, but it’s incredibly easy. You fry smashed garlic in olive oil and butter, and cook chopped bacon or pancetta in it, then toss spaghetti into it. On the side, make a mixture of beaten eggs, grated parmesan or whatever cheese you have lying at home, and then mix it into the hot pasta, after turning off the heat. As the eggs cook in the residual heat of the pasta and the cheese melts, it all emulsifies together into a smooth sauce coating the pasta, et voila! Your carbonara is ready.
For the sweet tooth
No meal is complete without a dessert. I tried a microwaved caramel custard. Simple as the recipe promises, all you need to get right is to caramelise sugar with a little water in a heat-resistant glass dish. On the side, make a mixture of milk with eggs, sugar and vanilla extract or essence, and then pour it into the caramel dish, cover it, microwave it on low power for about 18 minutes. Poke a knife into the custard, if it comes out clean, you know it’s ready. All you have to do now, is upturn it gingerly into a larger dish and you’re done. It’s best served chilled.
Now what I want to do is try my hand at baking. I’ve assisted my mother, but I’ve never done it myself. With no oven, though, I suppose all I can do is try a microwave ‘mug cake’. I look forward to seeing how it turns out, and I also look forward to other ideas that pop into my head. Last week, my mother suggested I try her Irish chicken stew recipe. Maybe I’ll give that a shot.
I’ve realised that cooking is even easier than I used to think it was, and I’m glad that I’ve managed to not only cook for myself, but even stay interested in the activity. Once we’ve all adjusted to the new normal that is coming about, as things are beginning to open up again, a lot of us may not go back to doing everything as we used to. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’ll stick with cooking all my meals by myself, but something tells me that I will be cooking a lot more than I used to before all of this began.