Wednesday, March 21, 2012


My mother was a great cook. She could make scrambled eggs look and taste like a gourmet dish. The beaten eggs were stirred and sauteed into just the right shape, not too mashy, nor humongously chunky, with their colour turning first white and then into resplendent hues of gold. The resulting scramble was attractively colourful - the translucent whites of oil-veiled onions, the fresh red of juicy, plump tomatoes, the green from fresh chillies and fresher cilantro. The seasoning was often simple with just a pinch of salt and pepper. The aroma wafting from the vessel would be simply heavenly sending a bored, slumberous stomach into raptures of hungry ecstasy. And the taste - well, paeans could be sung on the way the egg scramble would play with our palate, marry into a great union wrapped into a roti roll or perched atop a golden toast or sandwiched between two thick slices of whole-grain, home-made bread.

There were times, when I would return from school and she would pluck fresh leaves of the Chaulai greens (Amaranth) from her bountifully large Kitchen garden, throw it in with unskinned potatoes and dried whole red chillies into hot mustard oil with splattering mustard seeds in an iron skillet and serve the dry sabzi with hot chapatis. I can still taste it after a long gap of 25 years. The trick was in the timing. She would never under or over cook the vegetable cooking it into a perfect dish just as she had imagined it to be.

Ma learned how to cook Desi and Mughlai Indian dishes from her maternal side - they seemed to have a rich tradition of food and eating at home which borrowed heavily from the family roots both sides of the border - Punjab in India and Lahore in Pakistan. Ma also picked up valuable skills, techniques and recipes of Continental Cuisine from my Father's long-standing Khansama - Gafoor, who was more a Man Friday and Confidante than just a cook to my Father for most of his bachelor days and well into his marriage with my Mother.     

With such great schooling in culinary craft, Ma always managed to impart lasting lessons on making food - from the science of growing it in your own garden to the art of cooking it in divinely diverse and exciting ways possible - one of the permanent passions of our family.

This winsome Winter Salad, then, is a sort of a back-handed tribute to Ma. I am calling it the Winter Salad because some of the good stuff that has gone into it is available best in the cold season. But with ease in imports and demand from the consumers, anything is available on the store shelves anytime now. So, you could enjoy it at just about any time of the year. As for us, the Family has already munched on the good-looking medley of vegetables several times this winter. 

Here's presenting a nice, heart-warming Winter Salad tossed up by employing some of the finest food-related lessons Ma has left behind.

Ma always maintained that you first eat with your eyes. She put out her profound sense of aesthetics even in the way she planned, created and managed her gardens. I remember the time when I was eight and she won one of the biggest gardening championships in the Jhansi district for the Year 1974. A definite post material for probably my next outing here.

She prided in her pots & pans and her finest China that she managed to lug around without any breakage from Dad's posting from one part of the country to another, then another. She would polish and clean her China and silverware and bring them out in resplendent display at the several parties she had to throw as a Cantonment Top Boss's Wife. She taught us how different things - from salads to entrees to desserts - had to be plattered and laid out on the table - for an informal lunch for friends to more formal dinners to a larger buffet set-up for a big party at home.

Ma's first lesson - you first eat with your eyes!

And hence you need to choose your plates and platters well. You also must learn to present your food nicely in those platters.



Ma' second lesson - Balance

The ingredients must be in the right measure; they must balance each other well too. Her measure for spices and herbs was the time-tested Indian way - by the pinch and to the taste (swaad ke anusaar). For continental cuisine she would use her measuring cups but overall it was by estimation. And what a perfectly balanced estimation that would be - never leaning too heavily on a spice so as to overwhelm the dish and spoil its taste.

In her dishes, she would balance the basic characteristics of the ingredients too - some had to be on the same side while others could be conflicting yet yielding a pleasant taste once combined. 

In this Winter Salad, the crunch of green grams, onions, broccoli and nuts is balanced with the soft texture of tomatoes, sweet peppers and cottage cheese.

Ma's third lesson - Use of best produce

Ma was a great proponent of organic food long before it became a modern-day fad. Much before Nature's Basket became a gourmet store, we were picking out tomatoes, aubergine, gourds - bottle, bitter, snaky, striped; spuds, chillies, garlic, raddish, carrots, bell peppers fresh from her bounty-laden Kitchen garden basket.

Also, roses, chrysanthemums, gladioli, gerbera, carnation, calendula, dahlia, phlox, pansy, holly hock, sweet peas and many many more from her front garden that we would pluck on instruction (always the one's that were about to go in a few days time and never ever the buds as the flowers looked more beautiful on the stem than in the vase, Ma maintained) to set out in five to six elaborate arrangements to be placed all around the house - in the Living Room, on the Dining Table, at the bedside or the Dresser, one in the kitchen, another in the foyer and so on.

A meat eater unlike me, she also knew how to choose and select the best piece or part for the dish she was going to make; from cutlets to casseroles and curries, pasandas to pilafs, roasts to roulades. While Dad was once sold offals when he was asked to buy meat for a formal Do at home, Ma knew how to direct and guide the butcher ever so gently and have him pry out just the right cut for what her recipe demanded.     

That is one hell of a valuable lesson. Ensuring that the ingredients are the freshest and the best, already puts you on a winning streak so much that even if your recipe is commonplace it always ends up tasting good.

The Winter Salad showcases the best seasonal produce - dairy-fresh Paneer, fresh from the farm vegetables in lustrous colours, firm texture, juicy, tender or with the right crunch as the case may be. The Olive oil and dressing used is of one of the best qualities available.  


Ma's fourth lesson - Timing

Every cook worth his or her salt knows this. What is the smoking point of your cooking medium, just when should you add the onions and for how long should they be stirred to turn them golden and translucent before their edges begin to blacken, how long should the cumin seeds be allowed to sputter, at what point of cooking a dish should salt be added and when do you exactly add the tomatoes, for; if you add them too soon then the sourness in them will not allow certain vegetables to cook fully - there are scores of gems that abet you in presenting that perfect platter.

In the Winter Salad I followed a sequence for adding the ingredients. I also adhered to the time when I needed to bathe the vegetables in the silky smoothness of olive oil and  dress them up with the smoky, bronze-hued burnt chilli & garlic dressing. The most crucial aspect is the time when you need to squeeze the lemon juice over the bowl and add that pinch of almost mandatory salt, preferably sea salt - you add them in the beginning and the ingredients begin to react in the acidic medium turning limp. Mixing lemon juice and salt just before serving the salad keeps the ingredients perfectly al dente - just as they should be when they lodge themselves between your teeth.

Ma's fifth lesson - Shape and Size

When we were too young to understand we really thought that Ma was some kind of a culinary wizard - making the same egg scramble taste differently all seven days of the week if she wished, just by the swish and slice of her knife. The same was with her salads and several dishes. As time moved on, while we still upheld that Ma was a magician behind the stove (or grill or oven or the big, fat, mud-coated Indian tandoor that she stood by), we also became privy to one of her easily-shared secrets. She displayed in her oeuvre that it was important to knife out perfect cuts of vegetables for different dishes and also how each cut lent a different taste.

Try it. Finely chopped tomatoes, onions or any other vegetables taste hugely different from their thick, stocky versions. They also become a different preparation if sliced lengthwise or in other shapes.

For the Winter Salad, I kept the size to moderate and the shape to square. Had I decided to cut them in strips or juliennes my Salad would have tasted completely different to the one I laid out on this occasion.

Ma's sixth lesson - Technique

There were little things that Ma would do with her cooking to take it from one level to another. Sneak a bowlful of tomatoes under the hood of cooking vegetables to bring them to the same cooked-up level as the rest of the pack. She taught me how to brown the onions and add just that bit of water to it at the right time of frying so as to get a delightfully rich brown colour which would be used to give the royal treatment to the Shahi Pulao. She would roll her potato wedges into a mix of flour and salt before deep frying them into golden heavenly bodies with such dexterity that it would retain the inherent sweetness of the potato yet turn up as the finest crispy and salty fries this side of the Atlantic. There is one official lunch I remember where she made the Shammis sans meat, using only the lentils to cater to the large herbivore guest list such that even the die-hard meat lovers couldn't tell the difference. Ma would at times employ a western technique to an Indian dish or add an Indian seasoning to the Continental preparation to create her own innovations in the kitchen.

She beat and braised, cut and combined, drizzled and dressed, mixed and melted, weeded and whipped with such precision, enthusiasm and finesse that our Annapoorna turned into Julia, Nigella, Patricia - all rolled into one. My happily large size and innate predilection towards being a gourmand is one lasting example of Ma's prowess in the kitchen. She is known to have won many friends not on the boat but the bowl ride and got the better of arguments and disputes just by inviting the opponent to her dinner table. She even robbed me off my friend list as most of them turned turncoat towards me willingly stepping into her heartwarmingly, inviting camp!     

I tossed my Salad attempting to whip up some of the same frenzy but it fell shades paler to what Ma was capable of. Yet, the end result is quite appealing even if my technique is a far poorer cousin to hers.

Ma's seventh lesson - Visualization

Either because she was an award-winning Civil Engineer's wife or because she was one of the finest observers known not just to me but also within her intimate familial and wide social circle, Ma had fine-tuned her trait of Visualization to an attribute par excellence. Her simply designed yet beautiful country style home in her Doon farm house is a living testimony to that. She would visualize designs and knit exquisite patterns in her embroidered works and woollen dresses. She would visualize her front and back gardens (both were given the same place of prestige by her) in a certain way and then go about creating beautiful flower and vegetable beds, gravel or stone paved meandering pathways, water bodies, rock and cacti gardens, little or large self-made garden toys and sculptures.

Even in her cooking, Ma would visualize how she would create and present her dish and believe you me, it would turn up just the way she had thought of it in her head. I have tried this on several occasions and it works, enhancing the overall taste and presentation of my dish.

Ma's biggest lesson - Passion and Love 

These two words have been the crux or the focal points of Ma's entire life. Be it the philanthropic work she did or how she went out of her way to volunteer to bring up children of family members and domestic staff. Whether it was her award-winning gardens that she left behind as lovely gifts for the next inhabitants each time she moved with Dad for his next posting or the special classes she held at the behest of the General's wife for the benefit of the army wives, she did it all with the two most important aspects of her personality - rock-steady love and intense passion.

The same attitude she carried into her cooking. Because she was passionate about her produce, cooking style and end product she always presented the perfect platter, even when she cooked the simple homely fare of Dal, sabzi and roti. Her rotis were in perfect round shape and perfectly puffed up. Her marinades were so perfectly balanced that the meat or vegetables would lay happily in this mix imbibing all the juices and flavours to the optimum.

And what can I say about her love for food and feeding. My friends who she fondly cooked for, still remember her with a lot of affection even after the 12 odd years she has been gone for.

Ma loved taking care of people and feeding them her divine delicacies was one of her finest ways of expressing her love for food and the people she fed.
It indeed is Ma's finest lesson to me that when the basic two ingredients are passion and love not just in food and cooking but in your basic recipe for life even the simple turns sublime and the very common fare assumes a breathtaking character.

Here's wishing that you weave the fine lessons that your parents leave behind in the person that you are into the very fabric of your life. Yes, also in cooking too! 

Meanwhile, enjoy the Winter Salad in all the seasons of your life! 

Credits - 
Mis-en-place - Teju Sahu
Food styling - Karuna Dayal
Food photography - Moi