It is said ‘A watched pot never boils’ – of course it does, eventually, but time seems to pass ever so slowly when you are watching, and it doesn’t help!
When you are cooking the focus must be on the ‘process’ of cooking, and it is important to enjoy it. You need to let ingredients simmer and cook, let flavors marry. If you hurry the process, you will make mistakes. In the early days of cooking, I ruined many a dish. I would add the vegetables before the masalas had cooked properly; cook potatoes on high heat and burn them; turn over the chicken pieces in the pan too quickly, not allowing them to cook through; stir the vegetables or sauces vigorously, trying to push things along. I thought cooking was all about movement.
Then I started using a timer, setting small goals : Two minutes for the oil to heat. Three minutes to cook the paratha on one side before flipping it over. One minute for the masalas to cook (one minute can seem awfully long when you are watching a clock – try it!). I did this until I understood that cooking required periods of doing nothing at all.
I now enjoy sitting on a park bench, watching the trees and the blue sky on a warm sunny day. I no longer tap my foot impatiently as I wait for the walk signal to turn green or get jittery if I do not get a response to my email within a minute…
Like the proverbial spider who kept trying to climb the wall time and again until he succeeded, I learned that if the dish did not come out right the first time, try once more and a third time and a fourth….
Cooking is about practice, not theory. Unless you get your hands dirty, you will not learn and learning anything new requires dedication and – yes, patience! I made Arhar dal six times before I had the mix of the dal, water, and boiling time together to get the right consistency. I am, however, still struggling with the chaunk, but I continue to try.
Making Marinara Sauce was another challenge. I tried many recipes – using ripe tomatoes, tomato puree, chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, no onions, oregano, etc., but every time the taste was just ‘tomatoey’. Then, one day it happened! I tried a simple recipe my sister-in-law gave me. With some trepidation (but a never-say-die attitude), I started making the sauce – sautéing the garlic in oil, adding crushed tomatoes and basil, and letting it simmer and simmer and simmer. After half an hour and stirring just twice, it all came together – the garlic and tomatoes married beautifully in the oil and gave off a wonderful aroma.
At first, I tried to make a recipe exactly as given – I drove myself crazy measuring each ingredient and then wondering what went wrong if the dish did not come out well.
But all recipes are not made equal, and cooking is about developing your own taste and flavor. If you Google Eggplant Parmigiana, you get ‘about 1,390,000 results (0.37 seconds)’ – Wow! You say to yourself, where do I begin?
Now when I cook, I look at a few recipes and choose a couple I like / look easy / have the ingredients. Sometimes I don’t have all the ingredients for a particular recipe and try a mix-and-match strategy. And if that doesn’t work, I try something different the next time! Remember it’s all about being creative, experimenting. That’s how the best cooks became the best cooks! (I guess that’s also how fusion cooking evolved.)
So add a dash of this, a pinch of that, a shake of the other, a slice of something. Don’t be afraid to try. Sometimes follow a recipe; sometimes don’t. There is no one way to cook. As Mark Gatiss is quoted to have said: “One man’s fish is another man’s poisson.”
It’s never too late to learn
I was never interested in cooking and did not need to; we always had servants to cook for us in India. But my mother was a fabulous cook and she tried, really hard, to get me into the kitchen. Through sheer force and persistence, she sent me to a cooking class where I managed to learn some basic dishes.
Now I am in the U.S., where there is no concept of having a cook at home. You can, though, survive here without cooking. All you need is a microwave and a trip down to the grocery store. The freezer section is stocked with ready-to-cook meals – pizzas, pasta, frozen dinners, breakfast meals, etc. Whatever your craving is – Butter Chicken with Rice, Dim Sum, Tempuras, Thai Green Curry – it’s available. However, coming from a place where I got freshly cooked food every day, I knew that it was finally time to start cooking!
I searched for recipes online and watched videos on YouTube. I learned how to mince garlic, make croutons, boil pasta, roast pecans, make pasta sauce… I learned to appreciate the rhythm of chopping and cutting;the sautéing and stirring; the sound of onions sizzling in oil; the aroma of garlic frying; the colors of greens and vegetables in a salad… I discovered a whole different world, and I am enjoying it!
Apart from cooking, I also learned how to make bead bracelets. It took me three hours to make the first bracelet, using a needle, wire, and beads, and I must say I was impressed with myself! I am also taking online courses to learn Spanish, build websites, and whatever else catches my interest – painting…calligraphy…. The world is wide open for learning!
The French call it mise en place, and it means ‘putting in place’. It is the process of setting up ingredients and tools in an organized manner to make cooking easier – you see it on cookery shows.
I am actually quite organized; everything in my room has a place for it (though sometimes I forget where I put things). But cooking, with its many ingredients and sometimes elaborate recipes, threw me into a universe where chaos reigned until I learned how to wrestle it down and control it with mise en place.
- First line up the ingredients as given in the recipe, along with knives, spoons, measuring cups, bowls, pans, etc.
- Next measure out the spices and liquids
- Then peel, cut, chop, slice, mince, shred, the herbs and vegetables as required
- After that put all the ingredients in their order of appearance – remember that each one is a star, and you need them to work together to achieve box-office success!
- Finally, start cooking!