Last time, dear reader, I made a valiant effort—again—to dispel the notion that I do not cook vegetarian food. I trust I was somewhat successful. I have since been trying to find common techniques and ingredients that can be used for both realities.
These attempts were made easier recently because I was housebound, again, courtesy the virus of our times. If it appears I have been writing a lot about food and illness lately, you are right. But since there has been no let up, kindly bear with me.
After an operation, after both I and the wife were struck down by covid-19, it was the turn of our 12-year-old. So, there we were, looking worried, as her temperature stopped just short of 105 degrees. The good thing was that she was lucid and reasonably cheery through it all—I am uncertain why and how—so we hunkered down and got through it.
Now, the thing about being housebound for so long is that you cook far less than you usually do because people around you—at least my family, friends and neighbours—keep sending shipments of food.
The generous yoga teacher upstairs sent us, over the days, spiced, mashed potatoes in a toasted-bread sandwich (to be had with Tabasco sauce), a khichdi made with dahi (curd), fluffy dhoklas (she’s Gujarati) and a salad.
My cousin down the road has always been a provider but she stepped it up during the recent isolations. As I write this, I have just finished an egg-white omelette stuffed with one of her mutton cutlets. There are various other gifts—chicken canapés, cheese canapés, fenugreek-and-cumin bread—but let’s leave those aside.
Let’s not forget my mother, also down the road, who sent over fried kane, or silver fish, along with her usual chicken soup and the daughter’s comfort food, masaru anna, or curd rice.
This bounty was well and good and we could have gotten by without cooking at all, but the kitchen has been a hub of activity in these housebound days. There are endless rounds of washing up and cleaning at every meal. There is no escaping this because we are very much a three full meals a day family—sometimes more. The sink is always filling up and utensils are forever being put away.
While we are grateful for all the gifted food, there are always blanks to fill in, and sometimes you want food just the way you want it. In my case, food that is low on oil, light and fresh, easy to make and easily shareable.
At a time like this, when you don’t want to overthink what you cook and put too much thought into the ingredients you need, it’s best to take a long, hard look around. There wasn’t much in the fridge by way of fresh ingredients, except some lush-looking coriander.
That was a good start.
Trailed by the cat—who likes to munch on lemongrass leaves (and promptly vomit it out)—I searched the wife’s kitchen garden for ingredients.
She is wary of my forays because of course you need decent quantities to cook with, and she is stricken when she sees her herbs stripped bare.
The mint appeared bountiful, so I grabbed a handful, threw it in with the coriander. It all looked nice and green. I thought of green chicken—a cafreal came to mind—or green fish masala, such as the Parsis use in patra ni machchi. This was a perfect base for a sauce that could be used for vegetables and meat.
Inspiration is often a matter of things clicking in your mind, and that’s what happened with this sauce. I added in lime juice, a green chilli, and, to provide some contrast, cumin seeds, something they tend to do, I remembered, in north African sauces.
The sauce was a hit. I used it as a marinade for air-fried chicken, a garnish for roasted potatoes and carrots, and the wife used it as a chutney atop lemon rice and dal.
When illness visits your home, you tend to feel kindlier towards your family. I am sure there was extra oxytocin being churned out and I made good use of the extra love I felt.
The sauce appeared to be just fine after three days and a little went a long way. With the green sauce at hand, I found it very easy to do the minimum possible with vegetarian or non-vegetarian and yet make lunch appear reasonably well thought out.
No-fuss cooking during an illness is important but it should not come at the cost of satisfaction. There is little need to eat conventional sick-people’s food when you are ill. A little thought can go a long way in making you feel better and getting you back on your feet.
And don’t forget that dash of love.
MULTIPURPOSE CORIANDER AND MINT SAUCE
Makes half a cup
2 cup fresh coriander
1 cup fresh mint
1 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 green chillies, deseeded (depending on how spicy you want it)
Juice of 1 large lime
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Grind all the ingredients together until reduced to the consistency of a sauce. Keep in the fridge for up to three days. Use with roasted vegetables, steamed fish or roasted chicken or meat. If you are making roasted vegetables or meats, my advice is to roast first with salt and pepper, then toss in green sauce. If steaming fish, apply liberally on fish before steaming. You can also use the sauce as a garnish, mixing it into rice and dal, or rice and fish and chicken curry.
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.