1 carrot, 1 radish and a few beans: Cooking in the time of COVID-19

I know this is not the place: it is, after all, a food column. But when I was asked to write it, focusing on the situation, something in me turned. The Hindu has readers who have access to food, but need ideas on how to cope with shortages. Shortages not of quantity, but of variety; in the worst-case scenario, maybe of traditional ingredients. And oftentimes of help.

A couple of weeks ago, an American magazine had a tongue-in-cheek article where the author, an accomplished baker, went to the local grocery, noted that yeast was clean off the shelves, and had a face-off with another customer over the last bag of flour on the top rack. He muttered — in his mind — about how the other chap had probably never baked bread before in his life, what a waste that bag would be, and how he knew the other would fail and get his comeuppance.

I am a grasshopper

It was slightly funny, in a superior, nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way. But deep down, it was a reminder of how privileged we are; we look for variety. When asked to give to those who have nothing, we hem and haw. I’m trying not to sermonise, but let’s count our blessings and do what we can to help others.

I can’t help but think of the ant and grasshopper fable because when the lockdown was expected, all the ants I know drove around loading their cars, stockpiling victuals. Grasshoppers like me didn’t, for vaguely moral reasons. And now we’re stuck with what we have in our cupboards. Which are, like Old Mother Hubbard’s, bare. Unfortunately, I’m a relentless cleaner-of-shelves, so no serendipitous delights await me, however far back I reach into fridges or cupboards. I know exactly what I can expect to find — how many stumps of drying cheese and how many inches of peanut butter in the jar.

I see what people post on social media about what they cook, of how they’re coping with the lockdown. And I’m amazed at the dishes home cooks are conjuring up. The Westerners all seem to have forgotten jars of sundried tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil so they can make flavourful pasta, and bags of buckwheat flour so they can make soba noodles, and bags of almond meal and boxes of cocoa powder so they can make gluten-free cake. This seems to be an opportunity to experiment. Some Indian cooks are making gatta curry, chana bhatura, gol gappa and ras malai.

Watching these posts gives me a complex, so I prefer to believe that they must be proficient cooks anyway. Maybe it’s to do with their now having more time to indulge a hobby, but I don’t know how to make complicated dishes and I’m dealing with a different challenge. Vegetables aren’t consistently available. Sometimes, if we have only handfuls of different vegetables in the house, I make combinations that may seem odd bedfellows, but I’ve always been charmed by the Bengali panch mishali. So we collect a single radish, a carrot, a handful of beans, a layer or two of cabbage, a few leaves of spinach, a chunk of pumpkin, a potato, half a cauliflower.

Making do

The principle we’ve adopted is to make do and to juxtapose textures: firm and soft-and-squishable. The varieties may be more or less than panch or five, the spicing may be different, but the method is broadly to temper mustard oil with a single spice like kalonji, nigella, or a standard combination like panch phoran, a couple of green chillies, and then cook the vegetables, having cut them into cubes or fingers and timing their addition at the appropriate moment to make sure they cook.

A bit of ginger juice freshens the flavour and probably helps digestion. Finally, I add a smidgen of ghee and a pinch of sugar and it lets me pretend it’s authentic.

We are a meat-eating family and there is no meat, fish or chicken. Egg supply is erratic. This week, the local Safal is well stocked with lentils and pulses. Fortunately, I have a full chest of spices. The upshot of all this is that I can only perk up flavour with unexpected combinations and spices. Because I’m one of the miraculously lucky élite whose only pressing concern is combating ennui.

A principle we learnt back in the days before liberalisation was to substitute, replace and adapt. I had a recipe for aubergine parmigiana that looked uncomplicated enough, but since it asked for Parmesan cheese and I had only stubs of Cheddar and Red Leicester, and because it asked for fresh basil and I had none, I did what I could. Because I had the main ingredients: aubergines and tomatoes. And the dish is elastic and accommodating.

Gone yeast

Meanwhile our local ‘artisanal’ bakery has temporarily shut shop, so last week, the baker-in-residence said he’d make bread. Unfortunately, the dough didn’t rise. When I told a friend this, she suggested that the yeast could have expired, and sent me, in the hope of better times, the link to a video describing how to make near-perfect toddy at home, with a mere three ingredients: coconut water, sugar and yeast. I’m saving it for when yeast is available.

Instead I made muffins. I wrote about them about 12 years ago, in one of my earliest columns here. Because they are so satisfying and so easy to make in these hard times, it seemed worth sharing again. As my mother, who taught me the recipe, said, “they’re very forgiving” — you can use any flour, any shortening, they take a few minutes, and if you want you can bung in whatever flavouring you have at hand, sweet or savoury.

SUNDAY RECIPE

Basic muffins

(makes 12)

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock
 

Ingredients

2 cups sifted flour

½ cup sugar

3 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

1 cup milk

½ cup vegetable oil

1 egg

Method

1. Preheat oven to 200° C (400° F). Grease bottoms only of 12 muffin-pan cups. Sift flour with baking soda and salt. Stir in sugar. In separate bowl, beat together egg, milk and oil.

2. Spread flour mixture in wide round bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in egg-milk-oil mixture all at once. Stir with a fork just until combined. Spoon mixture into prepared muffin-pan cups.

3. Bake until golden, for about 25 minutes. Immediately remove from cups by inserting knife tip under each to loosen. Serve hot with butter.

When mixing batter, stir just until flour is moistened. Do not beat. Batter will be lumpy but makes for tender muffins.

Muffins can be frozen or kept for a few days. Wrap in foil and reheat in oven before serving.

From the once-forbidden joy of eggs to the ingratitude of guests, the writer reflects on every association with food. vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com

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