Ever since Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong, Curtis Stone, Master Chef and some set foot in our homes, food has somewhat morphed from the dal-chawal-roti-sabzi routine to assume new avatars on our plate. Food is less about hunger management and more about ‘plating up.’ I noticed this even more after I became a mother— I began to explore a whole new relationship with food as I was trying to introduce my son to the world of flavours and textures. I certainly wanted to graduate from baby-food as I found it quite demeaning. He thought so too, and made it amply clear right from the start.
It all started from his squeal of delight at purple-stained palms with beetroot puree at age six months (instead of the more recommended staid pumpkin), his grabbing of a soup-stick, his dousing idlis in molagapodi from my plate and chomping a whole one in three bites, his helping himself to a mixed lettuce salad with vinaigrette dressing, all before he turned one. I knew I had birthed a foodie and I raised the bar for myself. Post the beetroot rhapsody, much foodie adventures have happened and still continue, with our recent escapades with Nigella’s linguni with pesto (which, incidentally, he has patented a very unique way of eating) . While I go about working on my culinary art, to please my more demanding palate (and his too), Re potters about with his pots and pans—he has an Ikea kitchen set, complete with colanders, saucepans, cookie cutters, ladles, rolling pin, and even a gas range.
So here’s some food that soothes our visual senses as well as our taste-buds.
1. Baby potatoes in thyme
A for Aloo is probably what they should teach at preschool, since a child’s relationship with potatoes is far deeper than that with a certain fruit of sophistication that, even in season, is as dear as 100 rupees a kilo. Aloo was also Re’s favourite vegetable of play, with him tossing them around in real cauldrons (mine) and pretending to stir fry, sometimes pierce them with a fork, ready to bake (clearly I have no issues with cutlery),even pour them. My rendering of them was still limited to aloo parathas, a crispy aloo sabzi or an aloo raita. Mashed potatoes were not good looking enough, hash browns needed an accompaniment, roasted potatoes are great but difficult to master consistency with and dum aloo somehow lacks the dum and frankly, is messy and busy.
Then one day, a bag of baby potatoes arrived and he looked at them suspiciously, perhaps wondering, “Mommy! Who shrank the potatoes?” I pretended that just like human beings, cats and dogs, aloos could also have babies and they often ended up looking cuter. It took him a while to get friendly with the babies though—he still preferred their more robust, adult versions. The trick was to find a stand-alone baby potato dish that could win him over, qualify as finger food, be appealing to the eye, and that I would enjoy as much. My baby potatoes in thyme won on all counts. Simple, non-messy, non-fussy and extremely elegant with no extra work at all (it would help to choose evenly sized potatoes but not imperative). And it is still the one thing I always make when we have friends over (his or mine). It looks good, and it sure does make me look good.
One packet of baby potatoes (or 250 gm)
One tablespoon butter
Dried thyme, pepper
Salt to taste
Boil the baby potatoes enough to be able to peel them, and set aside.
In a shallow pan, throw in the butter. Heat enough to melt the butter, then throw the thyme and pepper powder and then the potatoes. Add salt to taste, but remember that the butter is already salted.
Toss it all around to mix thoroughly and roast on a slow flame will the potatoes are evenly brown.
2. Nigella’s Linguini with fresh Pesto and Beans
Almost every afternoon, Re and I stare wistfully, sometimes in awe, at Nigella Lawson in Nigella Kitchen (we have a bank of recorded ones as the real show is way past his bedtime). We watch her transforming the mundane into the seductive in the kitchen, in a manner that only she can. Her lazy, effortless way of cooking is something that I am trying to adopt, although I don’t have her persona and definitely don’t sound as convincing when I say, “When I am in the kitchen, I’m happy”.
Pasta was always a favourite for Re, ever since I saw a strand of spaghetti making its way from my plate to Re’s mouth at age nine months. It was a tomato-based sauce with bell peppers, mushrooms, and aubergine, and he picked out the yellow and red bits and ate them too. He was ready for world cuisine, I thought, and there was no looking back.
But Nigella’s Linguini with pesto, potatoes and beans! Our collective eyes lit up. Now we were talking! Somehow a green pasta with oodles of texture and hidden beans seemed like an exciting visual break from our regular red (both of us are not fans of white, cheesy sauces). Off I went shopping and set up a play date with Deeya, the screechy girl next door who for once called me auntie, instead of my name and said, “I really like this. I really like you!” Re signed off the performance with a Nigella impersonation of eating the linguini with both hands, sinking it into his teeth as if it were dental floss, and pulling it on either side. It’s a classic! I love you, Nigella.
250 gm linguini
A medium sized bunch of basil (or two packets from the supermarket)
Parmesan (100 gm)
Extra Virgin Olive oil – one tablespoon
Two medium sized potatoes
100 gm French beans, destringed (around 15-20 beanstalks) and halved (or whole, if small)
Four cloves of garlic
Salt to taste
For the pesto sauce:
Blend the basil, the parmesan, the garlic and the olive oil to a coarse mixture with a little salt. You can add some of the pasta stock (water in which pasta has been boiled) to the blend to make a good puree.
For the pasta:
Chop the potatoes and add them to a large pot of water and bring to boil, adding a little salt.
When the potatoes are half done, add the linguini to the same pot, mixing well.
Five minutes later, add the beans (whole, preferably) to the mixture, mixing well to ensure the potatoes, the pasta and potatoes are evenly cooked.
When the beans are cooked to a crunch, switch off and drain the pasta.
Transfer the pasta to a large bowl and mix the pesto with it. (You can use some of the pasta boiling water to the pesto to give it a better pouring consistency). Mix the pasta with the pesto well with a large fork. You will notice that the potatoes would crumble in, adding further texture to the pesto sauce and ensuring you get an even mix.
3. Tabouleh salad
I often give Re real vegetables to play with, usually onions, potatoes, beans, peas or lady fingers. It makes him feel like a real chef, like he is making some important contribution to the daily spread. One afternoon, he set his hands on a box of cherry tomatoes in the fridge and set about using them to create something. As I watched him, he first bit into every cherry tomato and threw it into another pan. Some, he just ate. It actually reminded me of the iconic “thoda khao thoda phekho” from Jaane bhi do yaaron.
Very soon, there was a small heap of half-bitten tomatoes staring at me and the thrifty me couldn’t let it go to waste.
I decided to teach him the art of creating something out of waste. I couldn’t think of a better medium than couscous. So the much insulted cherry tomatoes found salvation in a Tabouleh salad. We also play a little game where we each have to find the tomatoes/olives in the salad and get a clap every time we do.
What you need:
One cup cous cous (or burghul wheat, or lapsi)
One packet of cherry tomatoes
Small bunch (3-4 stalks) parsley
Two spring onions (with leaves)
One tablespoon olive oil
Salt, pepper/paprika to taste
Juice of one lemon
5-6 black olives, sliced
Take the couscous (or lapsi) in a shallow bowl, pour enough just boiled water over it to cover it, and let it sit.
Chop the olives, and the cherry tomatoes into halves. Also chop the spring onions and parsley fine.
When the couscous has absorbed all the water and swollen up and looks dry, break it with the help of a fork, clearing lumps if any, so that you get an even, powdery mass.
Add the tomatoes, olives, parsley, spring onions, lemon juice, paprika (or pepper), salt and olive oil, mixing well, breaking any lumps.
When I was still wondering whether Re was really ready for adult food, began the attack of the Tsatsiki. It was a house party where Tsastiki was served up as one of the dips on a platter with lavash and soup sticks.
Initially, he was excavating the Tsatsiki with a soup stick, but he soon decided to abandon the soupstick and dig in with his fingers. Soon he was wearing a tsatsiki mask and my guests were staring open mouthed as a nine-month old displayed his refined palate.
“Is he ready to eat dips?” They asked. He bloody well was. At least much more than he was ready to eat baby food out of a tin.
Tsatsiki was the first sign that Re found baby-food and its mushy, gooey avatars demeaning and disrespectful to his sensibilities. He was ready for the real thing, real interplay of flavours, real textures, real subtleties.
I also realised that dips were such a great way to legitimise the frequent snacking habit. All you need is some crackers or lavash or baguette slices or pav or carrot and cucumber sticks, a bowl of tsatsiki or hummus or guacamole, and you can dig in, any number of times a day. Sometimes we even use it as a sandwich spread.
I am not really into ready-to-eat snacks or processed food and you’ll seldom find me with a packet of biscuits or a bag of chips. But yes, a bowl of tsatsiki and brun pav? That would be us!
Two small cucumbers (or one large one), grated
One medium tub (400 gm) of dahi
One small bunch of dill (3-4 stalks) with the stalks removed
Juice of one lemon
One tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
One small teaspoon of paprika (you can also use pepper)
One teaspoon of honey (optional)
Salt to taste
Hang the curd till all the water drains off. Set aside.
Grate the cucumber, add some salt to it and set aside. The salt will exude all the water from the cucumber which you can then squeeze dry and set aside.
In a bowl, mix the curd, the cucumber, the garlic, the lemon juice, the paprika, the honey.
Add the olive oil and more salt if required and mix well.
6. Date and Nut roll
My mother always ensured I had regular consignments of her Date and nut rolls while I was pregnant. A nutrient-packed, easy to eat (or hide in your purse, if you are in a multiplex), fully organic snack, it was her version of the granola bar that kept me going through my constant hunger pangs. It does even now.
I got the recipe from her and started Re on them when he had a few teeth to reckon with. I am not a biscuit and chips mommy, although I encourage plenty of in-between snacking. It is our on-the go snack, there is always a box of it in the car, in the fridge, by the bed and in his toy basket. He fondly calls them ‘cookies’ and I haven’t bothered correcting him. It’s his anytime snack, sometimes a breakfast cereal, sometimes a dessert, and at other times a meal on the go. So if you want energy and want it soon, pop a couple of these. Also makes for a non-fussy, yet elegant dessert for those of you with a sweet tooth.
Seedless dates – 250 gm
Almonds – around 15
Cashews – around 15
Walnuts – around 10
Ghee- one tablespoon (you can also use butter)
Marie biscuits – 3-4
Chop the nuts and dates into fine bits. In a non-stick pan, add the ghee/butter. When it is suitably heated, add the dates and nuts, and mix well till it all blends well.
Switch off the gas and mix in the crumbled Marie biscuits, mix well.
When the mixture is cool, transfer onto an aluminium foil and roll into a cylinder with your hands. Wrap the roll in the foil and refrigerate for two hours.
Remove the cylinder, slice evenly and serve.
(This post first appeared in Midday on 21-08-2011)