Owning the recipe and playing with food

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When my interest in cooking started, I would follow recipe instructions meticulously, whether they made any sense or not. I blindly followed the cooking instructions and was too afraid to change anything from the ingredients list, even if it took me hours to find one silly ingredient that in reality, I could have easily omitted. I read cookbooks from cover to cover and unfortunately, treated them more like legal practice directions than cooking instructions. I was more comfortable challenging words written in the practice directions than I was in making any changes to the recipe that I was following.

As a result, many cooking disasters ensued to say the least. It was frustrating at times when the recipes never produced what they were supposed to! I began doubting my own cooking skills at times and was close to packing up all the books and jars of spices, when R helped out. He taught me how I needed to create my own style of cooking from these recipes and instructions and not blindly follow them. But I had serious reservations about my cooking skills!

I’d organised a Summer BBQ at my new house and slowly, the list of invitees grew a little out of my comfort zone. This was the first time I was attempting to cook everything myself from scratch so it was a little daunting. I pulled out my trusted recipe books but R closed the books and put them above the cabinets where I couldn’t reach them. We were going to cook ‘freestyle’! Oh my dear God. He wanted me to do all the seasoning but he did offer to mix the meat and knead it into kebabs for me. How am I supposed to do this without my book? I was all prepared with a calculator to tell me how much each ingredient was going to be for this large batch.

So, I learnt. I learnt how to smell the spice and taste each one individually. Some were painful to taste, yes, but a glass of milk did wonders to clean the palette. Then I had to close my eyes and try to visualise the kebab I wanted to create and what it would taste like. I wanted freshness in my kebab, so let’s add more fresh coriander. For spice, I don’t want it too spicy for everyone, so we reduced the heat. Seasoning with salt and black pepper was going to take a while to practice and perfect, so definitely needed some guidance on that one.

What did I learn? That as long as I have the key ingredients for a recipe, I could make it. In fact, I could create a mishmash of recipes by mixing a couple of recipes into one or even 3 into one. I learnt to play with food.

I smelt and tasted everything raw ingredient, except for the meats and raw fish of course. I taught myself how to make sauces and chutneys. They seemed the easiest at first, before I realised how complicated the balancing of flavours could be if it wasn’t done right. I had amazing fun making these but since I didn’t recognise any of the fresh herbs properly yet, it created a few little accidents along the way. The best one I remember was making a Mint Chutney with leaves that my sister picked out from my mum’s garden, and not realising that the leaves that went into the blender were infact the overgrown weeds from the back of the garden instead of the fresh mint I was expecting. Let’s just say, the taste of weed chutney is not one that could be easily washed out with a little bit of milk!

Why is my cooking style and technique so different even today?

I didn’t learn cooking from an early age. I had no interest in cooking at an early age. I have had the luxury of experiencing a lot of cuisines and have eaten at a lot of different places in different parts of the world. I appreciate cooking. I cook with my heart in the right place towards the cooking experience and for producing the best I can, but I also use the logical side of my brain. I need to know why, how and what for?!

My need to understand the role and purpose of each ingredient in putting together a dish, drives me towards creating different flavours and dishes all the time. Its not just a case of, ‘a little bit of this, and a little bit of that’. For me, I need to understand why I am adding that ingredient into my dish and what will it do to the food that I am trying to create?

As a result, I continue to read cookbooks as if they are stories. I wish more cookbooks had more background and historical information or creative direction behind the instructions in creating dishes. For now, I visualise imaginary dishes and places as I read these cookbooks and they get locked in a part of my brain somewhere. Whenever I am cooking, one of these recipe ingredients or directions will pop out of nowhere and change the course of what I am cooking by taking me into a new direction. This is how I ‘own’ my own recipe.

I cannot follow recipes very well. I follow practice directions well, and make sure all the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed. I have made trillions of checklists to make sure I follow procedure and directions properly and have taken pride in being able to follow complicated legal directions. However, when it comes to cooking, all that goes out of the window. Completely!

I own my recipes by transforming them and creating them as part of my own experience. I share that experience with everyone that I cook for and teach. Anyone who has attended any of my classes will affirm that even though I hand out a list of ingredients that I am using, I encourage people to write their own instructions as to how to create the dish. It’s not about following a recipe, and I am so grateful to my friends who directed me and sent me down this path. I don’t think even they envisaged I would keep on going down this path though.

I would encourage everyone to read recipes, follow them to a point but use your own direction to create your own dish. I would love to see more stories behind recipes from cookbook authors and more than accurate recipes, their reasoning behind using particular ingredients would stick in people’s minds for a lot longer.

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Playing with ingredients is fun. It is mesmerizing to watch kids play and experiment with food. They pick up the piece of food very carefully, examine it for a few seconds in their hands before popping it straight into their mouth. One little nibble and the expression on their face says it all. Following the same technique, play with real food. Explore their taste and texture and try to incorporate it into everyday foods. Play with herbs and spices the same way. I learnt to love vegetables this way, appreciate the aromatic herbs that transform our food and the balancing of spices.

I am seriously considering to stop writing recipes, and just post photos of what I make with brief descriptions of what is being created, how and with what objective. What do you think? Or am I the only one in this playground at the moment?

Chicken Kebab Meatloaf

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I recently had Carpol Tunnel release surgery on my hands, so making kebabs and meatballs have been a little difficult to handle. I like making kebabs and meatballs in big batches and just freezing them for whenever we need them. This way, I can whip up meatball spaghetti at any time or even a Meatball curry with rice which is a favourite in our family. The kebabs are fantastic in wraps and sometimes just crumbled up on a caesar salad.

The story behind this meatloaf started off with a Kebab mix. The meat was marinated for kebabs but since I didn’t get time to make them before the surgery, I had no choice but to turn it into a meatloaf. I now have to start making these meatloaves more often as these made amazing sandwiches the next day, were fantastic with salad and even with some garlicky roasted potatoes on a bed of rice.

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Unfortunately, this a recipe without measurements. It’s not difficult to make, just flavour it to suit your taste.

First, to make the chicken kebab marinade. I added some ready made kebab mix powder that is readily available at most grocery stores. You can make the mix at home, but some of the ready made ones are just as good. Since some are spicier than others, be a little conservative when adding the kebab mix.

Then, add some salt, pepper, ground green chillies (Thai chillies), fresh cilantro, ground onion paste, ginger and garlic paste, a little tomato paste, an egg and and a handful of breadcrumbs. Knead the mixture using some oil in your hands, and make sure everything is combined really well. The best way to check the flavour of the meat is to take a tsp of this mixture and cook it in a small frying pan. Once the chicken is cooked through, taste the seasoning and add more kebab mix if you need to.

I let the meat marinate in the fridge at least overnight. I took a foil tray and shaped the meatloaf into a huge oval shape.

Make a dressing to top the meatloaf by mixing some ketchup, mint coriander chutney, sriracha sauce, a little barbeque sauce and some garlic paste. Rub this liberally on top of the meatloaf and I surrounded mine with baby potatoes that had been prepared to make garlic roast potatoes.

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Since I was using a foil pie plate for the meatloaf, I fitted it into a cake pan filled with water before placing it on a baking sheet. I had to minimise dish-washing as the bandage couldn’t be soaked, so disposable trays have been very handy. The water at the base of the meatloaf helped keep it all nice and moist.

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Getting into cooking with Chicken Tikka Sushi

As a teenager, I had no interest in cooking but I was a fussy eater. I only ate things that tantalised my taste-buds and it was probably one of the reasons I was a lot skinnier in those days. Coming from a single parent family meant, I was working and studying as soon as I was able to. My mum did all the cooking for us and it was always ready for us when my sister and I got home.

I went to University in the evenings those days, after working during the day and I was the only one whose parent came to pick them up in the evening. Someone would always tell me that the White Audi was outside. As soon as I opened the passenger side door, there would be a tray of food covered in a tea towel waiting for me on the seat. Our drive back home was me eating dinner in the car and updating mum on the events of the day.

Then, I got married, but I still didn’t have to cook. We either ate out or X cooked on the odd occasions that we were home. It was just work, work and work, with no time for cooking at all. London has a lot of restaurants, and I’ve been very fortunate to have sampled the menus of many.

It was only when I was 27 and was going through my divorce that I finally got cooking. But, it wasn’t an automatic transition. I still had no time for cooking as I was still working as a lawyer and drinking copious amounts of horrid coffee at Court whilst waiting for hearings.

One day, one of the family lawyers that I frequently met with at Court came up to me and congratulated me for finally getting divorced. I was a little taken aback as I didn’t know her very well and didn’t know what to say. She said she had only just found out that I was only 27 years old, as she always thought I was in my 40s! She told me I needed to loosen up a little and stop wearing these starchy clothes. I was flabbergasted by what she was saying to me, but I didn’t say a word. She asked me for my address and said she was going to pay me a visit that evening. I was very reluctant but thought, what’s the worse that can happen? I told her there was no furniture or anything in the house any more as it had all been cleared out by X, but that didn’t faze her at all.

That evening, this lawyer P turned up at the house and as I opened the door she had a case of wine with her. I told her I don’t drink a lot and it wasn’t me who had the alcohol problem, but she said we needed it tonight. At the time I remember regretting giving her my home address. I had visions of having to carry a very drunk woman by the end of the evening. P came inside with the huge box of wine bottles and then went back out to the car to grab some large cushions and a couple of wine glasses. It was pointless arguing so I just sat down on one of the cushions and joined her with a glass of wine. Suddenly, the doorbell rang, and P told me not to bother getting up, it was one of her friends. This friend comes in, holding a large cushion and a wine glass. She was a local solicitor.

Every time the doorbell rang, another solicitor or barrister would come in, with a large cushion to sit on and a wine glass to join in this little party. The door bell rang 17 times that night. All the solicitors and barristers who joined in on the party were in their 20s. I felt very old and out of place, even though we were all the same age. P sensed my discomfort as I was quietly watching everyone, and came over to me. She told me that I was the same age as her daughter and it saddened her to see  me age myself so much and missing out on life. She had brought this party over to my house to help me meet people my own age and start fresh. It was her way of reminding me there was more to life than work!

I made some fantastic friends from this group, and some of them are my friends till today. We partied a lot (will share those stories later!) and worked just as hard. I was in the middle of a horrid trial that went on for weeks on end. We were going out to the pub every night after the trial to continue working on the case. On the fifth day of the trial, which was the Friday, one of my new Barrister friends who was working with me on this trial, suggested we all head out to my place and work there. It would be fun to cook our food whilst we are working. WHATt?! I was horrified.

I didn’t know how to cook. I told R that the most I could make was a Tuna or a Chicken Sandwich and a salad. They were talking about making a curry and my idea of cooking an Indian curry was buying a jar of Madhur Jaffrey’s Chicken Tikka Masala sauce and pouring it over strips of pre-cut chicken breast. I could make rice though, but I usually bought the par-cooked packets that I could heat up in the oven. R was a little shocked to say the least and said, what kind of an Indian girl are you?

So, everyone came to my house that evening as we were all working through the weekend and I went food shopping with R. No tins or cans, no pre-made sauce jars, no pre-cut or marinated meats and definitely no ready made salads. It was surprisingly cheaper to buy real food than the stuff I had always been buying but I had no idea what to do with all the fresh stuff. At the time, I am embarrassed to say R could not find a single bag of flour, sugar or any basic ingredients or spices in my cabinets, except for some Salt, Black Pepper, Ketchup and HP Sauce.

We all cooked together and it was amazingly a lot of fun. The first thing I learnt that day was it was important to actually relax and clear your head with everything that we worked with all day. Cooking was the perfect avenue where I could actually clear my head, forget about everything and have fun! I was the dish washer and the food chopper that evening. Since there was only one pot to cook in, I had to keep washing it, again and again to complete the dinner.

The next day, which was a Saturday morning, I went shopping for dishes, crockery, pots and pans with my friends. I felt like Julia Robers in Pretty Woman going shopping for an entirely new wardrobe. Only mine, was to stock my kitchen. I never knew there was so much stuff that is actually needed in a kitchen! It was one of my life changing experience and I wish I could find words to explain the fun we all had that day. My arms still ache from remembering how heavy those bags were to carry after the amount of shopping we did.

That evening, we had a couple of more people joining us for dinner, as everyone was seriously trying to introduce me to more and more people. One of the new guests that came that evening, was a professional Chef from London, and till today he is the most dramatically gay friend I have ever had. I should point out at this point that my barrister friend R was also gay and so were a couple of other guys in the group.

The first day I met J, I was shocked when I opened the door to him. There was a a tall, bald headed guy, fashionably well dressed but he had the biggest and shiniest ginormous pink diamond cufflinks. Even the shirt he wore had pink diamond studded buttons and his jeans, was a one of a kind Versace, studded with Swarovski crystals from top to bottom. Me, in my pleated blue skirt and starchy white shirt felt and looked a million years old compared to him. The cooking drama started with him!

J taught me how to read a cookbook. Unfortunately, I only had one cookbook at the time, which was a Sushi book with a cooking kit, and it had been a gift from a client. In the kitchen was marinated Chicken Tikka, thanks to all the new Chefs in my kitchen, so he showed me how to ‘own a recipe’. J taught me not to be scared of trying out any recipe and changing it, to suit my taste, the ingredients that I have and making something completely different but delicious. Our dinner that night was Chicken Tikka Sushi rolls and they were an amazing hit. I have never made them again, but I think I need to.

From that weekend on, we all cooked together every weekend, for the duration of this trial. But the catch was to buy a new cookbook and make lots of recipes from that book for the entire weekend. We ended up with Mexican weekend one time with Thai being the following weekend. Our International culinary adventure was a huge hit.

By the time the trial was over, I was hooked on cooking. I carried on cooking and at times, I would end up cooking so much food by the end of the week that I had to start calling people to come around to eat it or just started giving it away to neighbours. Needless to say, I ended up hosting a lot of parties every weekend. I cooked the food and they brought the drinks. They are all alive and kicking, so the food didn’t kill anyone. I was surprisingly good at it which shocked me, more than anyone else in the world.

Cooking helped me relax, focus and make lots of new friends. It should have been a very difficult time for me, as I was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, trying to sell the house and buy my own place, reinventing myself as a 27 year old and so on, but if it wasn’t for these new friends and my new found love for cooking, I would have been lost.