Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Quantum of solace

Every cook-cum-hostess has her own method, her countdown, her to-do list.  

I am so relieved to return to my own ways. For some years, I was out of action for one reason or another and, when I got back, I succumbed to the lord and m’s long-held desire: to have a cook who could handle a dinner party alone. “Pay him what he wants, just relax and stay out of the kitchen.”

Yeah, right. I tried, and enjoyed some of the benefits. But they were limited. Each chap who has heard of lasagne sheets, who can open a bottle of mayonnaise and a can of ragout sauce, cook his own “red” sauce, knows the name of two-and-a-half curries ( paneer makhani and rogan josh with cashew paste!) and one “English pudding” (caramel custard) calls himself a “full cook” (as opposed to a dal-chawal “helper”). I then have to tolerate grey vegetables, dried-out chicken, thick, undercooked, burnt rotis, watery dal and embarrassingly small quantities; while he has the option of not tolerating any comments. This is bad enough on a daily basis but, when entertaining, I’m not prepared for the unpleasant surprises.

The biggest learning is this: a cook is only as good as the households he’s worked in. Since there are few homes with great tables and sparkling kitchens — and whenever one has a great meal at a friend’s it’s because the host has been slaving at the stove — I must revert to type and do the same. Neelam tells me of a friend who has a house with a grand, curving staircase. The hostess arrives late, holding a glittering handbag, click-clacks down the stairs in her stilettos, gushes, smiles and air-kisses the guests, and asks what’s for dinner. Clearly I’m not of the same league.

So I’ve given up on experiments and been enjoying my old system — over-planning and overcooking — in my new kitchen. This kitchen is, of course, a compromise with space but I’m revelling in details that had been visualised earlier: if I’m standing here, then the plug point should be there; if I’m moving left, then the kitchen roll should be there… Starting with the guest list, I have to commit everything to paper. Then the shopping, which no cook has ever been able to do. I phone Qureshi junior who might say “ aaj aapke matlab ki dasti nahin hain” or, heartlessly, “ aaj aa jaiye, bilkul bachcha hai”. Now I have the luxury of not having to run off to work. So if dinner’s on a Saturday, I shop by Thursday. On Friday morning, the cutting-chopping-grinding of masala for the meat and fish is done, so that I can cook after breakfast. And then when the curries have been moved to another counter and left to cool and absorb the flavours, I do the dessert. Never in reverse order, because I don’t want spluttering mustard seeds or drops of garlic and chilli-flavoured oil to plop with a hiss into a simmering kheer or custard. I send up thanks to Lares and Penates for the abundance of space in my very carefully-planned kitchen. Everything is transferred to oven-proof dishes and covered with foil — or if it’s a cold dessert, with cling film — and refrigerated. Dips or chutneys are done. In the evening, the larger serving dishes and seldom-used dinner plates are washed and kept on a side counter and silver polished. Linen ironed. Thank you again, L and P. On Saturday, we buy fresh vegetables and cook them, leaving for the evening only salad and roti-chawal-bread. Hot snacks, if there are any; though I’m increasingly of the view that they kill dinner.

Every cook-cum-hostess must have her own method, her countdown, her to-do list. And she — or he — could be blasé and spontaneous about it. I’m easy with impromptu stuff. But when there’s time to plan, I cook far too much; though I faintly remember a rule of so many chhatanks per person — I think it translates to some 300 gm. And I’m nervous and on edge. But the upside is that I know exactly when the snacks will show up, how much food is going to appear at the table and what it’s going to look, smell and taste like. I’d rather do without surprises. The comfort from the predictability of the outcome is worth the tension of what went before.

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