When short of ingredients, adjust

An unforseen event or a last-minute change of plans should not throw you off your menu—just don’t plan too much


Pasta with sun-dried tomato, asparagus tips and leeks. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Pasta with sun-dried tomato, asparagus tips and leeks. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

There are many things simultaneously tragic and comic about Bengaluru’s slide into endemic disrepair. The slaughter of our trees, the draining of our lakes, the daily death toll in frenzied traffic, the ending of the light, as concrete ghettos rub against each other, the garbage everywhere, the disrepair of roads, footpaths and drains, the end of planning—these are all tragic.

Some consequences of this degeneration are comical, as we saw last week, when the newspapers and television delighted in showing us visuals of stranded autorickshaw drivers enthusiastically fishing on streets flooded by overflowing lakes. Many displayed flailing karimeen (pearl spot), illustrating the old Indian belief that adversity can be a source of profit—and time-pass.

I was smart—or lucky, or unlucky, depending on how you look at it—enough not to be out on the flooded, jammed streets. But the consequences of the flood stared me in the face in the form of a bored six-year-old. The flood was only one of the reasons that she and our city were grounded most of last week. School was closed the first three days because the drivers and conductors of the local bus services—India’s largest—struck work demanding a 17% pay hike (they eventually settled for 12%). Since the daughter’s school uses buses on contract from the city, there was no question of school. That was just as well, given the rains that shut down the city. As the strike ended, that uniquely Indian creation, a bandh—or shutdown—kicked in, to protest the sharing of river water with Goa.

Whatever. School was shut, the wife was wandering the mountainous wilds of Ladakh, and I had to balance the six-year-old’s almost ceaseless demands for entertainment with a particularly testing work week. I find that once I enter a frenetic phase, everything becomes easy because there is little time to pause and stare vacantly at the rain trees, as I am prone to do. Since she was at home, we had much fun trying to put together new meals and snacks.

Now, her mother has a set menu, stuck to the fridge: pasta and home-made sauce on Monday (made by appa); chicken pulao (made by part-time cook) on Tuesday and so on, the occasional variation being mutton biryani from ajji, her grandmother. Even though she tries not to, the wife ends up planning food even on non-school days. With school shut, and the days unfolding with no plans, we ate whatever we felt like—within reason, of course. The great thing is that her mother has instituted a rule—everyone in this house must taste anything that’s new. You may not like it, but you must taste it.

So it was easy to get my suspicious child to take a bite of the pita pocket I had thrown together with leftover paneer, leftover ham, onions and the last dregs of hummus, on a day I had plain forgotten about dinner. She loved it so much that she had pita pockets for the next two meals.

This penchant for cobbling together meals with whatever’s available has always served me well, whether it’s to enthuse a hungry child or “kindly adjusting” when people are due and a spanner’s been thrown into your culinary works.

That’s what happened on the day of the bandh. The previous day, the wife had returned and heard of the impending party at her house. She raised a manicured eyebrow and gently suggested—anything stronger meets with resistance—that I get all the ingredients pronto since the bandh was starting the next morning. My nonchalant response was that it didn’t matter, tomorrow was, well, tomorrow, or words to that effect.

She shrugged, I did nothing, and when bandh day dawned, a quick shopping trip revealed that there was nothing to shop for. Everything was shut. The bandh was total. Oh well, it was what it was. There was no question of calling off the small dinner for four. A friend was flying in from Mumbai just before dinner.

The roast chicken was child’s play. The spices I needed for the marination were in the larder. As for fish stew, there was no fresh oregano, so I added some peri-peri spice instead and upped the level of white wine from a cup to two. The beans and almond stir-fry was ready by noon, the brown rice would cook as the evening unfolded. That left the pasta, the centrepiece common to vegetarians—the wife—and meat-eaters, which was everyone else.

There were some serious ingredients missing here. No fresh herbs. No Gorgonzola. And I could not possibly toss the pasta in the garlic-tomato-balsamic sauce that I made for school tiffin. When in doubt, I always say, simplify. Why do we in India need a “sauce” for the pasta? I remember some pastas in distant lands made with no more than fresh veggies.

Since there really was no choice, I gave it a whirl, using a bare minimum of ingredients. What emerged was a spare and lightly flavoured pasta that allowed the flavours of the fish stew to be absorbed when it was poured over. The house vegetarian, a fan of light cooking, appeared to like the minimalist flavouring of the pasta.

This jugaad meal allowed me time enough for a 140-minute dash to and from the airport to pick up our guest. As it happened, the bandh lifted by evening, but I and my little girl enjoyed our drive to the airport in the pouring rain.

As a perfect, breezy and cool Bengaluru evening unfolded, there was enough time to give finishing touches to the entrées, sip some wine and settle in with friends and the family. Ah yes, kindly adjust.

Pasta with sun-dried tomato, asparagus tips and leeks

Serves 4-5

Ingredients

1 packet farfalle, prepared and kept ready

1 leek, sliced breadth-wise at an angle

100g asparagus spears, washed and chopped in inch-long pieces

100g sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in warm water, then chopped

4-5 tsp dried oregano

3-4 tsp garlic, chopped

3 tbsp white wine

2 tsp olive oil

Salt, to taste

Method

Heat oil, add garlic and cook until it starts to brown. Add leeks and toss for a minute. Add asparagus and toss for another minute. Add the tomatoes and white wine. When it starts to evaporate, remove from fire and pour over the pasta. Toss well with dried oregano. Serve warm.

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.

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