Opinion | A (re) discovery of slow cooking
In a quarantine, a culinary awakening—with time to correct mistakes, replace ingredients and create food suffused with attention and affection
Shouldn’t I find something to do?"
“What do you really like to do?"
I just love Julie & Julia, that time-shifting, languorous movie inspired by an American housewife who transforms into a master chef, eventually introducing her homeland to the slow, sometimes intricate joys of French cuisine.
Meryl Streep plays Julia Child—a former intelligence operative—who, after settling into domesticity, has the conversation I refer to with her diplomat husband (who, in real life, she met on the job) in post-World-War-II France.
There was nothing rushed about the real Child, a towering, meticulous woman (at 6ft, 2 inches, she was—according to one story—once considered too tall to join the US armed forces’ auxiliary women’s services). Her videos from 1963—the year my parents married—are notable for their unhurried pace.
For instance, before she begins a recipe for French onion soup, she spends more than 10 minutes explaining how to select a knife, how to keep it sharp, how to hold an onion (“practise holding it for several days," she advises), how to position your fingers when chopping an onion—before getting down to the cooking.
This may seem counter-intuitive: a column that has banged on for a decade on quick cooking now eulogizing the Julia Child approach. But it is not. Like Child, I started cooking only because I liked to eat, and like her, my cooking style is changing during a defining period in life.
“I would like to cook some meals too, but not at your pace," the wife told me one recent afternoon, with some asperity, referring to a week of relentless cooking during another covid-19-linked quarantine. Our part-time cook had tested positive and my kitchen was back entirely in my command. With my in-laws staying with us and my parents locked down in their flat, there was a substantial amount of cooking required for both families.
But my cooking style, at a time when reasonable quantities of food were required, changed—again, counter- intuitively—and returned to a slower pace, reminiscent of a time when my cooking, and life itself, was sedate.
I have watched a ladybird frolic over a blade of grass for an hour and spent 4 hours roasting a leg of lamb, a way of life I gradually discarded around the turn of the century, when the mobile phone and the term 24x7 wrecked our collective well-being.
Certainly, there was enough to do during the quarantine, but I found I had a lot of time to do it. Locked in my house, with the kitchen and the day to myself, I found myself increasing the time I spent with each entrée.
I chopped slower. I assembled ingredients meditatively. I sautéed and simmered longer. Anything I could finish in 20 minutes stretched to an hour. I think the results were not insubstantial, in terms of taste and texture. My food looked better, and it tasted better—at least to me. When you cook all the time, the family grows tired of praising you; or if they don’t like the food, they know it’s best to stay quiet.
As I lingered over my cooking, I decided I would give full reign to my newfound slow-cooking desires one Sunday afternoon. So, I decided to turn out a saffron and pistachio rice—simmered in vegetable stock, which had itself simmered for an hour—an avocado-and-fresh-tomato salad, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, a ratatouille made with slow, roasted vegetables, and a meticulously marinated, whole slow-grilled fish.
The fish I chose was an Indian salmon, which we know as the rawas, or to use its grandiose, official name, the fourfinger threadfin. With income dwindling over the years—entirely of our choosing—and a startup to run, the spouse and I have been extra-conscious of luxuries. So, expensive white pomfret and kingfish are rarities. The rawas is an acceptable, middle-tier alternative, firm when fresh and perfect for grilling.
The weekend spread came together easy like Sunday morning. Prep occupied nearly 2 hours, but that is how it is these days, with no help and high inspiration.
I have found slow food to be more forgiving. There is more time to correct mistakes, replace missing ingredients and ensure cooking gets more attention and affection. Yes, affection. When I do not show love for what is on my burner, there is a greater probability of error and a lower likelihood of success.
Slow food also makes you unafraid. It gives you time and space to experiment, test, assess and laugh at failure. I do not intend to be immodest but little to nothing has gone wrong in my kitchen lately.
As Child said: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." Quite.
GRILLED INDIAN SALMON (RAWAS) WITH MASALA
750g whole fish, cleaned, scored on either side
4 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Juice of 1 lime
Salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
For the masala
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp garam masala
A squeeze of lime
Salt to taste
Mix the masala well and keep aside.
Marinate the fish for at least 2 hours in the spices, lime and salt mix. Rub the mix—with 1 tbsp of olive oil—well into scored skin and pour leftover liquid into the fish cavity. Place fish on a roasting tray and pack in masala on both sides. Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Roast for 25 minutes. Turn over carefully, drizzle with remaining olive oil, spoon some of the masala on top and finish at 200 degrees Celsius for the next 10 minutes.
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.