Alcohol may not be the answer, as a wag once said, but it certainly makes you forget the question. So, let me confess that we, like billions worldwide, certainly are trying to forget the question of when the pandemic will end.
Inevitably, our consumption of alcohol has been a bit above normal over the 250 days that have passed since India recorded its first coronavirus case. For the last six years, for health reasons, I had—largely—managed to limit myself to the prescribed two drinks a week (okay, four). It stayed that way when the lockdown began, but as days blended into nights and tension blended into tedium, I joined the spouse and friends in succumbing to the buzz of Bacchus.
Many of my friends believe in the adage that a drink a day keeps the blues away. When my father goes to his physician and discusses his litany of medical problems, the doctor listens patiently, and after the prescription is out of the way, usually ends with a big beam and this advice: “Have a drink sir, and smile more often.”
The father usually offers a stony expression in response, but the doctor’s ho-ho heartiness certainly helps relax my discipline. While I may not drink every day, I am now easier about imbibing, and on days I do not, I am happy to take a quick, large swig from the spouse’s glass. It is, of course, important not to stay home, brood and drink every day. In that direction only lies ruin. But work hard, work out harder, eat well and you can feel comfortable about that drink at dusk.
In my case, whatever I am drinking inevitably finds its way into whatever I happen to be cooking. That restricts the alcohol that goes into me. This is no bad thing, and it certainly infuses our dinner with more flavour and zest.
My wife, who maintains the bar and considers it her prize possession, watches like a hawk when I drink and cook. I have been known—as old-time readers of this column will testify—to use the best single malts, cognac and vodkas for marination, stews and curries, and she finds this irksome at best and sacrilege at worst.
But I cannot be deterred, and she cannot be omniscient.
The raids on her bar are possibly harder for her to endure because almost none of my booze-based recipes is vegetarian like her. There are some alternatives, but alcohol is best merged with meat. The best example in my kitchen of such unions is rum and pork, an old favourite. The rum lends a sweet smokiness to slow-roasting pork, always a runaway winner.
Alcohol is particularly good in adverse weather. In Delhi summers, I remember cooking with beads of sweat pouring down my brow, a glass of wine to brace me and invigorate whatever was on the stove. I recall standing there swaying with the loo—the hot wind from the west—as it blew through the house, coating everything in its fine dust. Unbowed and uncaring of its depredations, I felt a certain triumph over the elements.
Winter cooking with alcohol is easier still. The cold lends itself to the easy culinary use of spirits. I often poured myself brandy or wine and used an equal amount in my entrée of the day. Sauté, swirl and sizzle—there is something about the sound of cool alcohol meeting hot wok, made more spectacular if you choose to flambé.
In breezy, balmy Bengaluru, with nine months of equable weather, meteorological adversity is limited mainly to the rain, unceasing cloudbursts of it over this long, sometimes gloomy season of downpour and pandemic. Well into October, the monsoon showed no signs of ending. With clothes drying behind me, and the giant flame of the forest swaying outside my window, I have been spending many memorable evenings recently with a glass of wine in hand and a dish on the stove.
If your fridge tends to collect wine that has been opened, all the better. Wine is particularly good to add to fish and chicken, and if you want to put in the least effort possible, use the oven, as I did after finding some white wine of dubious provenance. There was not much to do, except bung it in, take it out when done and say cheers.
BAKED CHICKEN IN WHITE WINE AND MUSHROOMS
Half kg chicken in small pieces
7 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
Half cup white wine
2 tsp fresh rosemary
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Half tsp pepper powder
100g mushrooms, sliced
Salt to taste
Marinate the chicken in white wine, Kashmiri chilli powder, garlic and salt for an hour. Arrange in oven-proof dish and mix in rosemary, pepper powder, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. Cover dish in foil. Preheat oven, bake for one hour at 170 degrees Celsius. Remove foil and continue for 30 minutes more at 200 degrees Celsius, basting occasionally in its own juices.
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.