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Find the right music, make the right food

Music and food can play important roles in renewing and revitalising relationships

Ratatouille for a date night. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

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The Ave Maria was composed 197 years ago by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert, its first verse used in church ceremonies about 1,500 years ago. It is popular as an elegy at Christian funerals.

A Latin salutation to the Virgin Mary may seem an incongruous accompaniment to date night but the version we listened to—sung by the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri when I was nine years old—was beautiful and effervescent, and it helped at a critical moment in cementing our relationship of more than 23 years.

A passion for music and food—and for passion—have always been important ingredients for renewing and revitalising our relationship. Sometimes, we look at each other and say, “23 years!” The wife, ever the cynic, may declare marriage an outdated institution and monogamy obsolete, but, 23 years later, here we are, still able to scrape together moments and music amid life, work and discord.

It isn’t a long time compared to our parents. Mine, before my father passed last year, were married 57 years, sharing a love for travelling, reading and the nightly news. My in-laws, 53, written about in The Indian Express in the 75th year of India’s independence as the couple that had walked hand in hand every evening down Mumbai’s Marine Drive for more than half a century.

Our other common points are a shared sense of values, a love for books and a pesky pre-teen. I must mention here that while we might like to cook together, we do not share a love for the same food.

She is vegetarian, I am avowedly not. I can eat any unfamiliar body part and food with little or no spice; she likes fresh veggies but is suspicious of unfamiliar green things, such as raw bananas and unknown roots, and likes to add tabasco sauce to poha and upma. I like to eat by 7pm, she prefers a liquid diet and—claims—she does not care about what’s for dinner.

Music, then, is the great unifier, and the confluence of music and food is especially important to us. Music helps soothe the soul and creates an aural atmosphere for shared experiences, in the kitchen or otherwise—since this is a cooking column, I will stick to the culinary bits.

Our day starts with a reasonably early breakfast, by 7am, just her and I, usually at the kitchen table. She makes fresh chutney and I make fresh dosa and fried eggs. If there are smiles over breakfast (not if the yolk breaks), it is reasonable to believe the day will go well.

The day and the week had not gone so well when date night rolled along, so we had much scratchiness to surmount. As the evening wore on, the combined efforts of various artists—many dead and gone—helped smoothen things. As the Ave Maria came along, feelings and passion had been firmly rekindled.

We usually order out on our date nights but last week it was pouring. “In half an hour we can easily put together something nice,” I said, and she agreed. The meal we meant to make that evening was ratatouille but many ingredients were missing.

We settled for no-fuss kokis—Sindhi parathas, so to say—and a nice, fragrant, um, paneer. I added on some spicy beef pickle and we settled down to dinner with wine. Ella Fitzgerald told us how she was bewitched, bothered and bewildered. I think we were too.

By the time I got those missing ingredients, it was Monday, the day of deadlines, a spouse who does not like to be bothered and growls at anyone invading her thought process. It was groundhog week.

The ratatouille did finally come along. By then the magic of date night seemed a distant memory. I was rushed, shuttling between work and other responsibilities, so what I produced did not seem ideal. The tomato base of the ratatouille seemed watery. When the ratatouille was presented at the table, she took some bites, looked down and muttered, “It’s delicious.” I was even told it was probably better more watery than solid.

In the background the music played, even if it wasn’t Ave Maria. Her memory was enough to extract a smile, though.

Hail Mary, full of grace—indeed.

Ratatouille
Serves 4

Ingredients
5 large tomatoes, pulverised
1 zucchini, sliced into 1mm rounds
2 tomatoes, sliced into 1mm rounds
Half red pepper, cut into half-inch squares
Half green pepper, cut into half-inch squares
1 onion, diced
3 tbsp chopped basil
1 sprig rosemary
One and a half tbsp chopped garlic
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste

For the dressing, mix the following:
Half tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped fresh basil
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp mixed herbs
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan. Sauté the garlic for 30 seconds, then add onions and sauté until translucent. Add red and green peppers and sauté until they soften. Add the pulverised tomatoes and mix well. Add salt and pepper, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover, stir in basil and rosemary and set aside.

Spread the tomato base in an oven-proof dish. Arrange tomato and zucchini rounds alternately (see picture). Pour dressing over the vegetables. Seal with foil and bake in the oven, preheated to 190 degrees Celsius, for 40 minutes. Uncover, increase heat to 200 degrees for the next 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve with rice or toasted bread.

Suggestion: If you want some meat, you can add sausages or chicken or almost-cooked pork to the tomato base.

Also read | A toast to Shao Hsing wine and char sui chicken

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter. 

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