Owls in feather land and a casserole in the oven
An imaginative child’s demand for culinary diversity is best served by keeping her guessing
After 10 minutes of Just For Laughs Gags—a Canadian candid-camera show that my eight-year-old and I are addicted to—we settled down to bed time reading. That night, she picked a did-you-know science book. I started explaining to her why we dream, how we sleep, and the brain stays awake, using our slumber mode to create a mash-up movie of our experiences, fears or fantasies. She pondered that for a while and said: “You know what, Appa, I had a dream last night.” This was unusual because my daughter is not the dreamy kind.
Surprised, I put the book down and listened. Her dream was about owls and how they were flying around in a land full of feathers. “They were feathers of different birds, and my friends and me (sic) just watched as the owls flew around.”
I was happy to listen. She had been away from us for more than a month, travelling with grandparents to the other side of the world to meet cousins. For this clingy father, unlike her more hard-boiled mother, it was too long a separation. Anyway, she’s back, there’s chaos in the house again, and I spend more time in the kitchen trying to cater to her little majesty’s demand. She does play her part though, uncomplainingly cleaning up the dirty dishes in the sink on her designated washing day.
Although we share two eggs and two dosas almost every day, she does not countenance the same lunch and dinner routine.
“Make something interesting, Appa,” was her instruction before she left for school the morning after the owls frolicked in feather land.
“Like what?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her eyes widening. “Make a surprise.”
I had to wrack my brains a bit. I was a bit rusty from the long layoff, and the wife had made things easy for me by suggesting chicken rolls one day, mutton rolls the next. These home-made rolls are better than the ones we get from Khan Saheb, a local takeaway that doles out thick chapatis with kebabs basted generously in oil. They aren’t bad at all, but I now intend to substitute Khan Saheb with Samar Saheb.
Pork pulao, corn rice and the wife’s pasta tossed with butter, garlic, basil and Parmesan took care of lunch that week. As she grows older, dinner for the daughter isn’t a problem because she increasingly eats what we eat. But the dream of the owls in feather land called for something special—the dinner needed to be as special.
When I seek inspiration, I tend to fall back on one-pot dishes because they (a) tend to confuse the daughter, as she struggles to decode the ingredients; (b) are fun to create; (c) are quite easy to make once you figure out what you’re doing; and (d) can be presented with a flourish that stands a good chance of impressing an eight-year old.
I chose a casserole, made with meat left over from the rolls and leftover pasta. This was something of a challenge because I wanted it to be healthy. The daughter, you see, has returned somewhat, well, tubby, from a holiday of relative inactivity and bowls of sugary Froot Loops. A casserole takes a bit of time to put together, but once that’s done, there is little to do but bung it in the oven and wait for the golden crust to form—a fitting culinary corollary to those owls in their fabulous feather land.
Shredded mutton chapati roll
Ingredients: 2 soft chapatis, made with ghee or oil; 1 tbsp onion, finely chopped; 1 tbsp tomato, finely chopped; 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped; A sprinkle of garam masala or black pepper; 1 tsp olive oil; Juice of one-fourth of a lime; 200g cooked mutton, shredded
For the mutton: In a pressure cooker, mix 1 tsp garam masala, half tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp coriander power, 1 tsp fresh chopped mint, salt and mutton. Add one-fourth cup water or less (so it remains dry) and cook for three whistles on medium-high and one whistle after reducing flame. Shred the meat.
In a wok, heat 1 tsp oil and sauté garlic. Add garam masala or black pepper and toss with onion, tomato and the shredded meat for 5-10 minutes. Mix in lime juice.
Wrap half the meat in two chapatis and serve hot.
Mutton, spinach and mushroom casserole
Ingredients: 100g shredded meat (left over from chapati rolls); 1-2 cups cooked pasta (I used leftover penne); 1/2 cup oyster mushrooms, cleaned, roughly chopped; 4-5 large leaves of spinach, cleaned and chopped; 1/2 tsp fresh rosemary; 2 garlic cloves, chopped; 1 cup mutton or chicken stock (I added some water to the leftover meat and let it stand); 1/2 cup milk; 2 tsp Greek yogurt; 1/2 cup breadcrumbs; Grated zest of 1/4th lemon; 1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese; 2 tsp olive oil; Salt, to taste
Heat oil in a pan. Sauté garlic, add mushroom and spinach and sauté for about 2 minutes. Blend in 1/4th tsp rosemary. Add stock and milk and yogurt and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and thicken (you can add 1/2 cup flour to speed up the process, I did not). Once done, add the shredded meat. Blend this mixture with pasta in a casserole.
In a bowl, mix 1/4 tsp rosemary, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, salt and spread over the casserole. Also, spread the grated mozzarella over the casserole.
Place in a preheated oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 15-20 minutes or until the mixture starts to bubble and the breadcrumbs brown.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @Samar11