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Tomato and cinnamon chicken stew. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Tomato and cinnamon chicken stew. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

A library as good as gold

Whether a source of reading pleasure or quick inspiration, a collection of cookbooks is just the thing for cook's block

With more than 50 books on food and culinary journeys, I should not be bereft of ideas on what to cook for dinner. Yet, there I was, scratching my head, as I thought about what to take along for dinner to the home of my five-year-old’s cycling buddy. I went blank. Sure, I could whip up the same things I do every day, but I wanted to do something new. I just could not think of anything novel and exciting; just one of the two would do. My creative waves had flattened. I had cook’s block, and I just had to overcome it.

So, about those 50 books. Surely, they could help? My collection is vast and varied: From classics like Prashad: Cooking With Indian Masters, the essential Larousse Gastronomique; mighty tomes like 1000 Great Indian Recipes and Culinaria: European Specialities; to booklets that encompass cooking styles from Mexico to Mozambique.

The problem is this: I don’t actually use them to cook.

Let me explain. I do read my cookbooks but more as light, night browsing than literary pursuit or cooking guide. One of my favourites is the second edition of a cookbook created by the Naparima Girls’ High School in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, in the West Indies. It is a gift from “Trish", Patricia Oggeri-George, of Long Island, New York. Her husband Nigel is from the Caribbean and they are some of the closest friends my little sister has in that far-away land. I recall a visit, a few years ago, to the Georges’ quiet, lush corner of New York, far removed from the global city we all know. We were taking in the late-summer sun in their backyard and partaking of their hospitality. The official name of the book is The Multi-Cultural Cuisine Of Trinidad & Tobago & The Caribbean. The names of the “cookbook committee", contributors and “busy persons" (the book’s words) betray Indian parentage: for instance, the late Mrs Dorothy Ramesar (Bunty) and Sylvia Bissessar. Their Indian heritage is, sometimes, revealed in vaguely familiar food (kachourie and kurhi), while others are tantalizingly half-familiar (curried ochro and curried chataigne or breadnut). Most recipes provide a glimpse of the multicultural influences on Trinidadian food—European, African and Chinese.

My short point: Surely, I could glean some inspiration from the rich material provided by the Naparima Girls’ High School of San Fernando? Or from the Suriani kitchen? Or even The Foolproof Cookbook? Or from any of the thousands of recipes at my disposal?

I’ve discovered that a surfeit of material can, in itself, be a block. Invariably, when you pick a recipe, the ingredients either aren’t available or aren’t in your larder. Given that most of my cooking tends to be last-minute, made with what’s available and instinctive, my vast library isn’t of much culinary use.

However, with the evening fast approaching and time slipping away, I had to overcome my cook’s block fast. Fortunately, the Naparima Girls’ High School recipes supplied me with just the inspiration I needed, just in time. I had to make something that was child- and adult-friendly—full of flavour and low on spice, something like Chicken A L’Afrique.

As usual, my attention wavered as I read the recipe, which called for “chunky peanut butter" and ketchup. That did not sound very appetizing. But I gathered that Chicken A L’Afrique was a stew, and that was enough to sweep away the cook’s block. My eureka moment didn’t end in a streak, but I did let out a whoop.

I got up and contemplated the modest chicken odds and ends—wings, neck and sundry bony pieces—I had. It would have to do. The resultant stew (the recipe is given here) evolved instinctively and took no more than 10 minutes to put together.

My culinary library is like this huge gold reserve. I may not actually use it, but with it as capital, I get regular benefits—reading pleasure or cooking inspiration. I could not ask for a better fixed asset.

Tomato and cinnamon chicken stew

Serves 3-4 children or 2 adults

Ingredients

Half kg chicken pieces, with bone

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 medium tomato, sliced

1 tsp ginger-garlic paste

1 tsp Deggi mirch (Kashmiri chilli) powder

Half tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp sesame oil

2-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 one-inch cinnamon sticks

2 leaves of star anise

Salt, to taste

Method

In a non-stick pan, gently heat the sesame oil. Fry the onion on medium heat till translucent. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a minute. Stir in the Deggi mirch, turmeric and cumin powders. Sauté for a minute or two, adding balsamic vinegar when it starts to stick. Add the tomato and mix well. Put in the chicken, salt and add enough water to cover the chicken. Slip in the star anise pieces and cinnamon sticks. Mix well, cover, lower heat to simmer and cook for at least 30 minutes or until the water has reduced. Serve with 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.

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