Still crazy after all these years
Was I getting too old to cater to the big occasion? I think the wife distinctly thought so when the family found itself in one country, one city, one neighbourhood. The plan was to advance coming anniversaries—my mother’s 80th and my brother’s 50th—so they could be celebrated under one roof.
But should that roof be our roof?
That was the question we debated one mild, pre-monsoon Bengaluru evening. The hot summer—hot for Bengaluru, anyone else from other big Indian cities would laugh—had wafted out on the city’s famous breeze. The gulmohars were in bloom, air-dropping carpets of flame-red flowers, as was the rare Tabebuia rosea, the rosy trumpet tree, lit up in pink as it filled our living-room view. Pre-monsoon showers cleared the air of pollutants every evening, and even the rush of traffic and ceaseless construction could not prevent crisp, clear skies.
In short, it was party-time.
Our house has always been an open house. In the 1980s, my mother handled scores of hungry, post-cricket teens with aplomb, putting on the table 2kg of tandoori chicken or mutton curry or whatever was cooked in excess quantities—which was almost every day, in anticipation of unannounced lunch-table raids. That open-home theme continued after I left home.
When I lived in one room at the start of my career in the early 1990s, my friends would pour in weekly for the sausage masala I used to cook on a hot plate pulled out from under my bed. When I shared an apartment in the US, while doing my MA, no prizes for guessing where 4kg of pork chops, chicken and beef briskets were barbequed. When I prospered and ensconced myself in a one-bedroom flat with a small front yard (I lived at the back of a house, so my front yard was the landlord’s backyard), everyone knew I did not quail at the prospect of 20 people dropping by at short notice. There was always meat of some description that could be made in bulk, and Cosy restaurant around the corner supplied paneer and rotis.
It got crazy sometimes—the cooking, the cleaning up, the restocking; oh, there was the minor point of finding time for work in between the partying. That was usually settled by pulling all-nighters and puttering home on Delhi’s deserted roads on my Hero Honda CD 100 just as the sun would poke its head over the horizon.
I got around the clean-up issue by making guests wash their own plates. I was happy to host them, but I would be damned if I was going to clean 20 plates. After some nervous laughter and murmurs of discontent, everyone realized that if they did not do the bare minimum, there was a distinct possibility I might pull down shutters.
Things stayed as crazy as ever after marriage in 1999, although my wife disapproved of making the guests wash up. Clean-ups became more formidable; she had more exacting standards. As the bar was raised through the 2000s, the partying reduced in inverse proportion to the size of our flat. With the arrival of the daughter in 2010, cleaning up after putting her to bed became that much harder.
There was, of course, no question of asking the ageing family gathered in Bengaluru to wash up—although everyone always offers to help, or eat in paper plates. Why, we are asked, do we not have help at a party? The short answer is that I like my kitchen to myself, we value our privacy and we cannot get used to the idea of someone else cleaning up our mess.
But since we do everything ourselves, partying at home had dropped from the crazy levels of the 1990s and 2000s. The wife is distinctly less enthusiastic than I am these days. She is more the going-out type; I am definitely the stay-at-home type. I suppose being parents and starting new jobs at a late age might have dampened the pace.
The anniversaries were a good opportunity to reclaim lost energy, to prove we could still do crazy. The family, anxious that we should not be put “to trouble”—what an infuriating dampener that phrase is—suggested we dine out. The wife tried to agree, but, for once, I insisted.
I enjoy having people over. I enjoy laying out a spread. I do not enjoy battling late-evening traffic. And I do not enjoy long tables where conversation is impossible, except with your immediate neighbours.
The key to having a big family bash at home is to pick recipes that can be executed in advance. I chose two from my past (recipes below)—adapted from obscure booklets, entrées I had last served up to a 40-people party at a cousin’s home 15 years ago. I added on a patented roast chicken that stays in the oven for more than 2 hours and starts to fall off the bone as dinner starts getting served. People always ask, “Should I bring something?” If you can take them for granted, say yes. So, we had a shepherd’s pie and a Goan prawn curry added in. Rice cooked in the rice cooker, the bakery bread needed a minute in the microwave and the salad was the only thing that came from our online favourite (Chefkraft.com).
It was a memorable evening. Unrestrained, the children tore around the house but mainly trashed one room. The adults gathered around, many drinks were poured, stories exchanged, and arguments and laughter coalesced into a long evening—which, since it had started at 6pm sharp, wound up by 9.30, just right for the children and us. It left us enough time to clean up, chat, enjoy the late breeze and bask in a warm, familiar afterglow.
Farfalle with Gorgonzola and sage dressing
Three by fourth box of farfalle (or any other pasta)
1 large head of broccoli, cut into small sprigs
10-15 sage leaves for the garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the dressing
150g Gorgonzola cheese
2-3 tbsp white wine vinegar
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3-4 tbsp fresh sage, cleaned and chopped fine
Cook the pasta and set aside. Boil the broccoli in a pan of boiling water for about 3 minutes, drain in colander, rinse in cold water and dry on kitchen cloth.
For the dressing, mash Gorgonzola in a bowl. Blend in white wine vinegar, followed by oil and sage. Add salt and pepper. Add the broccoli to the pasta, toss and pour the dressing over. Toss again. You can serve it lukewarm.
(From Dressings & Marinades, Anness, 2001)
Red peppers marinated in parsley and sherry vinegar
6-7 red peppers
6 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tbsp parsley, chopped
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Preheat the oven. Place peppers on a foil and grill at 220 degrees Celsius, turning every 10 minutes until blistered and charred. This may take up to 40 minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and cover with a clean kitchen cloth. This allows the steam to soften the skin. Once the peppers are cool, make a slit at the bottom of each and drain out the juice in a bowl. Set aside. Now, remove the skin from the peppers and discard. Cut the peppers in half and then lengthwise into strips. Remove the seeds and core.
For the dressing, mix the pepper juice, parsley, garlic, sherry vinegar, salt and oil.
Pour the dressing over the pepper strips and toss. Place in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.
(From Best Of Spain, Hermes House, 1999)
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.