Ready, ready, steady, go
Many would argue that it doesn’t make sense to use the word pre-preparation. After all, to be prepared is to be ready in advance. To be pre-prepared is to be ready in advance of being prepared.
Yet, it is particularly relevant to us Indians, who as a rule do not like to even be prepared. It’s a national malaise, and it explains why roads and footpaths are in an eternal state of disrepair, why trains derail frequently, why the air is so toxic in our cities, why we cannot win Olympic medals.
Think about it. Before roads and footpaths are prepared, we do not pre-prepare by ensuring that ducts for sewage, electricity, Internet and other utilities are laid. Around my house, roads tarred after years were dug up within a week. We do not pre-prepare train tracks by checking nuts, bolts and fishplates at regular intervals, so trains derail frequently. We do not pre-prepare for future growth—by putting in place policies, equipment, trees or enforcement staff, so when we prepare to add more vehicles and buildings to our cities, they cannot cope. We do not pre-prepare our children, our schools, our training programmes, so Olympic preparations are too little, too late.
My cooking style is much like this. Open the fridge, search the cabinets, and look around the kitchen. Grab what you can, throw it together and see what emerges. If it doesn’t work, patch it up and make it work.
There is much to be said for such an approach. It keeps the wheels spinning, things get done, and food gets on the table, regardless of circumstances. You learn to adapt and evolve, learn to achieve finality when it doesn’t look the way you had planned it would. That works well for a kitchen—especially one where your family is largely uncritical because they know you will make it work, somehow. Obviously, it doesn’t work as well for a city or a country, but that is not the subject of this column.
I must concede that pre-preparation helps you widen your culinary offerings because it allows you more options to cook with. This I know but often forget in the rush of daily life. The only pre-preparation I do these days is for (a) the fresh pasta sauce for my six-year-old’s Monday morning breakfast, usually made the day before and (b) ground masala for fish curry, which is bunged into a box and used when required. The wife, who is more organized and less accommodating of jugaad, likes to remind me of the benefits of pre-preparation by occasionally demanding that I produce the chermoula paste from the year we went to the Cauvery, the harissa from the time we lived in Nizamuddin in Delhi.
I do not remember any of these instances. Indeed, I tend to forget the things I cook. A quick search threw up the one time I had made the rich, red chilli paste from the Maghreb. This is what I mean by culinary pre-preparation, prepping your kitchen for things needed to cook the main meal of the day. As the pre-preparation of the harissa unfolded, I realized what I had been missing: Rich, fragrant and spicy, harissa is one of the most versatile additives I have known.
It is great with meats—lamb or fish, preferably grilled—or as a dipping sauce with breads or mixed in with rice, millets or couscous. In North Africa, they also use it in soups, but I haven’t. I used the harissa with vegetables, lightly done and tossed (see below). The paste is now stored away, ready to be used with more interesting things. Stand by for more benefits of pre-preparation.
Vegetables tossed with harissa
For the paste
12-14 dried red chillies, soaked for 20 minutes in warm water
2-4 pieces garlic
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1-2 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt, to taste
Deseed the soaked chillies, lop off the stalks. Grind in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients. Add more olive oil if you wish. You can store the harissa in the refrigerator for up to a week.
For the dish
Half onion, diced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
10-12 pieces garlic, finely minced
4-5 small eggplants, sliced into four-eight pieces
2 carrots, diced
2 cups cooked chickpeas, keep water handy
2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp harissa paste
Salt, to taste
Steam the carrots for a couple of minutes. In a non-stick pan, warm the olive oil gently. Sauté the garlic for a minute. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add the harissa paste (if you need it spicy, add more) and sauté for a minute. Add tomatoes and stir for 2 minutes. Add eggplant, mix with other ingredients, cover, reduce flame and cook until almost done. Open cover, add salt, chickpeas and carrots and mix well. Add water from chickpeas if things start to stick.
Serve hot with couscous, bread or rice.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also 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.