Get easy on the must-dos and enjoy a mouthful of nutrition.
Years ago I underwent basic training at the Taj, and, in my first days in the kitchens, was told repeatedly to learn the “meejon”. This was an affectionate diminution of “mise en place” the “putting in place” of ingredients, appropriately cut and prepped, before the actual cooking. Knowing French isn’t necessary to cook, but “meejon” certainly is. But even before that comes the selection.
Arjun Nair, 23, wrote to me from Mexico: “Cooking vegetables is MY Waterloo and I will be reading closely for further advice on how to deal with them, both buying and preparing. I have been spoiled all my life, first by my mother, and then by American ‘everything you need in aisle 4’ food consumerism. Reading your column gives me hope that I too will pick up cooking at some point, and not burn holes through my wallet eating out 24/7. Looking forward to a piece for naujawans like yours truly who are hungry all the time but have no idea how to navigate through a real food market.”
First come the inventory-check and the list. I start with the staples: potatoes, onions and garlic, which are less perishable, don’t need refrigeration, and can be bought in larger quantities. As readers must know, my big principle is to try to use only seasonal produce. It’s cheaper and tastes better too. The potatoes, like carrots, turnips, radishes and other root vegetables, should be smooth and unblemished. I don’t know about Mexico, but here, summer brings us sweet, stodgy potatoes from cold storage, so try to buy fresh “pahari” tubers from the hills; and, at the beginning of winter, choose new potatoes with thin skins — you don’t need to peel them, just give them a good rub (with a designated scrubber) under running water. And if you’re not cooking them immediately after cutting, keep them in cold water to prevent darkening.
What to watch for
Onions. Use only when cheap, which, in India, means in summer; and look out for wet ones that could be rotting inside. In winter, buy only as much as is absolutely necessary, and, early in the season, go for green spring onions. These aren’t a substitute for full-season red ones, but are good, sautéed crisp-tender, as a stretcher with mushrooms, eggs, potatoes, prawns, paneer: anything that improves with crunchy greens. If refrigerator storage space is an issue, cut off the stalks about two inches from the white bulb and keep separately (long narrow packages occupy less space). Reserve all the greens (except the tough bits). Be careful about storing food with strong smells by drying and then packing it in polythene bags. In any case, remember that milk picks up smells before you can say “Euww”, so ALWAYS keep milk and milk products covered.
New ginger arrives between the monsoon and winter and its price drops with the temperature. Use tender rhizomes in a relish, with lime juice and green chillies. Adding salt turns the slivers a startling pink.
Then come the tomatoes. We don’t have the varieties that the Americas do, and ours are best when red and firm. But if you can only find pale under-ripe ones, store at room temperature till they ripen. Green ones come rarely and if you plan to use them green, refrigerate at once to prevent ripening. Coriander (cilantro, dhania patta, kotmir) is cheaper in winter — in fact itinerant and pavement traders bung it into the shopping bag gratis. Like all green leafy vegetables sold in tied bunches, choose green, fresh looking specimens and store after checking for wet — and thence rotting — stalks. Store in a plastic bag, leaving its mouth open. Some people keep cleaned leafy stalks in a jug of water in the kitchen. I tried — it looked very pretty on the windowsill, like a magazine picture — but didn’t keep them fresh.
In winter I get vast supplies of salad leaves from my father’s kitchen garden. I wrap them loosely in a large, thick kitchen towel sprinkled with water and pack the whole bundle in a large plastic bag, again leaving its mouth open. If the salad is staying a few days, every three days or so it helps to unwrap the whole thing, get rid of the bad leaves and rinse and squeeze the towel. They still turn limp, so perk them up and rehydrate by washing and soaking in chilled water before serving. All green leaves, including those that need to be cooked, should be refrigerated, but despite that, some turn yellow. To keep them green, either cook pronto; or pick, wash and blanch within a day of buying them. Blanching literally means “turning white”, but it actually helps to keep green. Boil a large pot of water, immerse the cleaned and chopped vegetables for 20 seconds, turn off the heat and strain the veggies. Squeeze and freeze in freezer-safe plastic bags. Blanched greens occupy a fraction of the space that raw ones do, as do shelled peas vis-à-vis whole pods.
Green vegetables like beans, okra, cucumbers and all kinds of gourds are best when firm and green: avoid the limp, tragic looking ones that are showing their age. Check beans for tenderness by breaking off a length: it should snap off easily, without resistance from ropey fibre.
So my advice to naujawans like Arjun is that vegetables should be selected in the prime of their life and cooked and consumed as soon as possible; and, if delay is likely, to pause the ageing process by freezing.