Of TV dinners and chilli snow

When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and domestic goddess Nigella Lawson drew a reluctant cook out of the sickroom

Published - July 02, 2016 04:05 pm IST

Crisp-tender beetroot salad that’s infused with fragrance and flavours Photo: Kadambari Chauhan

Crisp-tender beetroot salad that’s infused with fragrance and flavours Photo: Kadambari Chauhan

Falling ill has some benefits. I was a bit unwell for a few weeks and watched so much TV that I can now do a food programme (or three) myself. I learnt a few things and discovered ways of using vegetables growing in my own garden. The moment I started enjoying looking at food and recognising TV chefs, I knew I was back to normal.

Two things augured well — my sense of smell had come back and my first tottering foray out of the sickroom was to the kitchen because one particular dish had enthused me. I had — mistakenly, I thought — grown some beetroots. Not my favourite vegetable, though its leaves are a pretty addition to salads. By themselves or with other leafy vegetables, or sautéed in a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and salt, they’re delicious. (I read, though, that they should be eaten in careful quantities if one has oxalate issues.)

Though the better TV food shows are the ones that travel, exploring culture and history through food, the best, my absolute favourite, is Jamie Oliver’s. Jamie O handles food with such masterful, tender intimacy that he takes all fear and trepidation away. I am an armchair cook and cook only under duress. Thence for me to want to run into the kitchen takes some motivation. And Jamie O does it. The way he grabs, pummels, strokes, massages, tosses his ingredients; the throwaway informality with which he measures quantities; the very scratches and scuffmarks on his pans; the tips that can only come from someone who has spent time loving and perfecting his craft — like freezing a fresh red chilli and grating it from high above a dish to shower it with chilli “snow” — all make good cooking look doable. It’s not a show kitchen; real food comes out of it. I’m a little worried that he never seems to wash his rice or lentils or even greens. One rough twist-and-turn from a pot growing herbs and the wrenched-off greens are ready to eat. Maybe there you don’t need to wash, but here washing is one thing I can’t bring myself to unlearn.

Though the impetus to cook with my own fair hands came from watching his shows, some others actually gave ideas that I could adapt to my own skills and kitchen. One was for beetroot salad in a show I don’t remember because it was otherwise so stilted; the other, for chicken with tequila and lime, was by that luscious goddess, Nigella Lawson, who, like a chocolate and cream and strawberry parfait, looks good enough to eat herself.

The beetroot salad presented a big problem. I didn’t know how to begin, how to prepare the beet. Boil, parboil, steam, pressure-cook or leave raw? And peel before or after? So I asked friends and ‘Chef Google’ and finally poached it — in spiced vinegar. So the beet itself, infused with the fragrance of cloves and cinnamon, lost its characteristic, unappetising odour, and was cooked just enough: crisp-tender, not mushy. Combined with white, intensely salty goat cheese, warm toasted golden-brown walnuts, pink acidic pickled onions, deep red concentrated, reduced, sweet-and-sour vinegar, and crisp, crunchy red and green beet leaves, it was a dish I could eat and was actually happy to behold.

And I made the chicken with vodka, not tequila. Lawson used limes with thick, fragrant skins, which I had no access to, but normal Indian nimbus did quite well. Her cooking takes longer, but her chicken isn’t skinned. She used red chilli flakes but I thought the flavour of fresh green chillies might work better. And it did.

Beetroot salad with goat cheese, pickled onions and walnuts

Serves 4

4 beetroots, medium sized

4 tbsp vinegar: balsamic and/ or red wine

4 tbsp sugar

1-inch-stick cinnamon

2 bay leaves

4 cloves

4 star anise

1 tsp peppercorns


4 tsp crumbled goat cheese

4 tsp hung yoghurt

4 small onions pickled in vinegar

2 tbsp walnuts, roughly broken and toasted in a dry pan

Large handful of beet greens


Wash beets, scrubbing thoroughly, and make a plus-shaped incision in stem-end of each. Place, cut side down, in small non-reactive saucepan and fill with enough water to half-immerse beets. Add vinegars, sugar, salt and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer till knife-tip can be inserted easily. Take out beets and cool. Strain spices and boil water again, simmering until slightly thickened. Meanwhile beets will cool. Slough off peel with fingertips and chill beets. To serve, place beets in centre of separate plates, cut side up. Combine goat cheese and yoghurt and pepper in a small bowl. Mound cheese-yoghurt mixture on beets. Scatter walnuts, onions and leaves around. Drizzle reduced liquid on salad.

Vodka and lime chicken

Serves 4

1 chicken, skinned and jointed into 8 pieces

2 limes

1/3 cup vodka

2 tbsp olive oil

4-8 green chillies, broken into halves


Put chicken into large freezer bag. Mix zest and juice of limes with rest of ingredients. Tip this marinade into the bag of chicken. Rub well all over chicken, seal bag and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 220 degrees. Place chicken in baking dish in single layer, pour half the marinade over, and bake for 10 minutes. Take the chicken out, turn each piece over, pour in rest of marinade, and bake again for 8-10 minutes. The time required will depend on the size and quality of chicken pieces. Serve hot.

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