The ultimate lockdown food guide
Freeze, brine, pickle, preserve! Your friendly compendium of tips and techniques to make the best of what’s in your kitchen during the lockdown
This period of isolation, frugality and enforced simplicity has taught us many things about food and cooking. Lounge puts together a guide to help you make the best of your kitchen resources and discover ideas and techniques that will come in handy now and always.
How to store smartly
Using the right storage methods will make your staples, produce and meats last longer and stay fresher
As supply chains become erratic, it’s a given that you will at times have more than you can use immediately—the farm you get organic vegetables from offloaded 5kg of tomatoes, or a neighbour bought 10kg of grapes and gave you half. Here’s a handy list of zero-waste methods of using and storing every bit of extra.
Staples: The easiest, most minimal-processing way to make your staples last is to store them properly. For dals, beans, dried peas and flours, glass containers are the best—sterilize them in hot water and dry before use. Adding a few dried red chillies prevents insects like weevils from infesting them (spreading them out in the sun for a few days should get rid of bugs and their eggs; you could even microwave them in small batches). If you have infested flour, run it through a sieve and then keep it in the freezer in a cloth bag for a couple of days to kill the remaining bugs.
Fresh produce: Under normal circumstances, there are different opinions on whether fruits and vegetables should be washed before refrigeration but that’s a moot question during a pandemic. Wash the produce, spread it on a newspaper and let it air-dry. Leafy greens are best dried in a salad-spinner or colander lined with paper towels. Ripen produce like tomatoes, mangoes and melons before refrigeration and use up watery, leafy greens (lettuce, spinach) within a day.
How you stack your produce in the fridge impacts its longevity: Many fruits and vegetables (like tomatoes, apples, avocados, peppers) give off a gas called ethylene which helps in their ripening, and some (like cucumber, eggplant, broccoli, lemons and lettuce) are sensitive to it, so keeping them next to each other is not a good idea. Keep them separated in reusable perforated vegetable organizer bags. Veggies like potatoes, garlic and onion don’t need to be refrigerated at all, while carrots, cabbage and beetroot can go up to a week without refrigeration.
Meat and fish: “The most basic rule is to freeze meat and fish in portions because each time you take it out and then refreeze it the quality degrades. You can even pre-marinate meat with salt, ginger-garlic paste and turmeric powder (if you are going to use it in Indian dishes) and this will keep it longer. To thaw, take the meat out of the freezer and keep it in the refrigerator compartment overnight," says Gautam Krishnankutty, who ran The Smoke Co charcuterie and commissary in Bengaluru till recently. Frozen meat can stay in the freezer for up to two weeks at least. “Even after that it’s not like you will get sick, but the taste will deteriorate because of freezer burn," he says (freezer burn occurs when frozen food is damaged by dehydration and oxidation owing to air reaching the food). To avoid this, use airtight containers or, if using plastic bags, try to remove as much of the air from inside as possible. Sausages and other cured meats (but not cold cuts) can also be kept in the freezer “for practically forever" since they are pre-cooked and vacuum-packed. As for fish, choose varieties with a dense rather than flaky texture (so seer, black pomfret and basa over mackerel, sardine and white pomfret) if you want to store it in the freezer for a week or more.
What to do with excess produce: The thumb rule for storing soft fruits and veggies efficiently is to strip them to their essence. Say, if you have 5kg of tomatoes, blanch them in hot water, remove the peel, purée them using a blender, cool and store in the freezer (preferably in batches so that you don’t have to thaw the entire lot). You can even roast them in the oven, purée and then simmer to reduce the water content further before freezing. Do the same for other watery veggies like spinach. Have yellowing lemons? Squeeze out the juice in a jar, add a pinch of salt and store it in the fridge for days at a time. With fruits, make a simple compote (boil with water, sugar and a flavouring agent like orange zest, cinnamon or vanilla) and use it as a topping for yogurt, pancakes or toast. At a pinch, the quickest way to consume extra fruits and vegetables is by juicing them up in various combinations or making smoothies. You can also use up fruit in overnight oats—layer a jar with oats, honey, chunks of fruit and yogurt and keep it in the fridge. Consume the next morning.
Freezing and dehydrating: There is no limit to the things you can store by freezing. “You can freeze milk to avoid going out every day. Freeze boiled dal—you will only have to reheat and temper it. You can freeze boiled chickpeas/beans/legumes and add them to a curry or make hummus. Freeze chicken or vegetable stock in ice-cube trays to use throughout the week," says Gorai. Dehydrating fruits such as apples, pears, bananas, kiwis is also a great way to store them, says Ruchira Sonalkar, founder of Native Tongue, which retails handcrafted jams and preserves: “Set the oven at minimum temperature and lay down cut fruit in a single layer in an oven tray. It takes about 3-6 hours, depending on water content in fruit and how thinly you slice them. Dehydrated fruits stay good for up to a year at room temperature in an airtight container."
How to preserve using sugar
The pandemic proves sugar can go beyond desserts and serve a larger purpose—that of making food last longer
If fresh mint and coriander are not available, can fruit peels turn into a chutney? If you bought 2kg of amla (Indian gooseberry) during a rare shopping trip, how can you preserve it? Reimagining a recipe, reinventing waste or rescuing fruits from decay can sometimes be infinitely more satisfying than baking banana bread.
Sugar acts as a powerful preservative and it can be used to make a syrup to salvage those extra amlas, says Ruchira Sonalkar, founder of Native Tongue. She suggests boiling the fruit, dipping it in sugar syrup and refrigerating. Fruits with high water content, such as strawberry, mulberry and raspberry, can be coated with sugar and refrigerated. “Sugar macerates, or draws out all the water, thus preserving the fruit," she says. As a healthier alternative, she recommends palm, coconut or raw sugar instead of the refined version.
Certain fruits, especially those with low water content, like amla, need to be cooked. Fruits can be transformed into preserves by adding sugar and an acid like lemon juice or vinegar. One can make a mango preserve by cooking slices of raw mango in sugar (rough ratio is 1:2) and lemon juice.
The purpose of these accompaniments can be expanded too. Chef and restaurant consultant Monika Manchanda says chutneys (see recipe) can double up as marinades for grilled meat, used as salad dressings or as a base for stir-fries and curries. She suggests using mint chutney for pudina-flavoured paneer or chicken. To boost immunity, she recommends a chutney with neem leaves flavoured with jaggery and a souring agent like kokum or tamarind, seasoned with cumin and garlic. Apart from storing in an airtight container, Manchanda advises adding a thin layer of oil just above the surface to make chutneys last longer. Dry chutneys like south Indian podis (made with sesame, flaxseed and spice blends) or the zesty Maharashtrian peanut chutney typically last longer.
How to ferment your food
This preservation technique increases shelf life by creating a microbial environment that suits ‘good bacteria’
Fermentation is ancient—a food preservation technique that’s at least 7,000 years old. How does fermentation work to increase the shelf life of food? Very simply put, by creating a microbial environment that suits “good bacteria" such as lactobacillus while preventing harmful bacteria from degrading food.
While a growing interest in baking during this lockdown has meant commercial yeast is often not available off the shelf, it is perfectly possible to make your own using ingredients at hand. A popular Twitter thread by US-based biologist Sudeep Agarwala (@shoelaces3) gives detailed instructions on how to culture yeast from dried fruit or fruit peels.
You can also make your own yeast/sourdough starter using just flour and water: Mix 2 tbsp each of whole-wheat flour and water in a deep glass bowl, cover it loosely with cloth and keep it at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, “feeding" it every day with 1 tbsp each of flour and water till bubbles start forming. It should take four-five days for the starter to be ready—break some off and check if it floats in a glass of water to know if you are done.
“Yeast is temperamental. You can’t rush fermentation," says Payal Shah of Kobo Fermentary in Bengaluru. Their Instagram page has instructions on how to make all kinds of fermented foods—from a thick yogurt to a Mexican pineapple tepache (a fermented drink that contains around 2% alcohol by volume) and lacto-fermented vegetables (see recipe).
Lacto-fermentation is a great way to use up extra vegetables (“lacto" refers to the lactic acid produced during the process which gives the ingredients a tangy flavour): Chop carrot/beet/radish/cabbage roughly, place in a clean glass jar with water (don’t fill it to the brim) and sea salt/kosher salt (iodized salt will inhibit fermentation) and seal the lid tightly. Keep it on the kitchen counter, opening the jar once a day to taste the liquid and release gases. Skim off mould or scum, if any, from the top and when it tastes right (pungent and sour and a bit fizzy), strain it and refrigerate both the liquid (to drink) and the solid bits to toss in a salad, fill in a sandwich or eat as a healthy snack.
How to pickle and brine
Salt and time combine to retain nutrients, add flavour and take everyday ingredients to a whole new level
Time is a crucial ingredient in pickling, and thanks to the extended lockdown the hours and days seem to be longer. “Pickling ensures that fresh produce surpasses seasonality," says archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Kurush F. Dalal. Summer mangoes, for instance, can be relished as a pickle in winter.
Dalal adds that the tradition of pickling emerged as hunting and food gathering made way for agricultural settlements. It began as a community food practice where pickle-makers, usually women, would also take home their share.
For urban kitchens adapting to the pandemic period, pickling can be an ingenious technique to extend the lifespan of food. Usha’s Pickle Digest, a book published 22 years ago, can be a handy guide (Pebble Green Publications). It is a documentation of over 1,000 pickles from India by Usha R. Prabakaran. Apart from the recipes, she lists detailed tips on how to buy, wash, peel and store each ingredient to save nutrients while making the pickle last longer.
Exposure to moisture is the ultimate undoing of a pickle and the book has simple recommendations, such as not touching the pickle with wet hands or spoons while making and handling, ensuring the storage bottle is completely dry and rubbing clove oil on the lid to prevent fungus. “Wipe bottles from the inside with a cloth dipped in hot salted oil preferably before storing pickles to keep the pickle fungus-free," writes Prabakaran.
Speaking to Lounge from Chennai, Prabakaran outlines the many ways to make pickles—fermenting, brining, cooking and sun-pickling. North Indian pickles, such as lime or mango pickles, are first marinated with spices and salt and then put in the sun for a few days to prevent mould formation as they ferment. South Indian pickles, like poond urugaai (garlic pickle) and mulakattiya vendaya urugaai (sprouted fenugreek pickle), don’t need to be kept in the sun. They are cooked with a lot of salt and oil and an acidic souring agent like tamarind extract to shield them from moulding.
Brining with a salt solution or vinegar is also popular. The north Indian sirka pyaaz, or onions pickled in vinegar, is a good example. Raw mango chunks can be brined in salt water and seasoned with a single green chilli to transform into a pickle within 10 days. “The rough quantities of water and salt for the brine solution is 1 litre water and 2 tbsp of salt. The latter can be increased up to 4 tbsp if the outside temperature is very hot," Prabakaran explains.
If wilting vegetables in the kitchen are making you anxious about impending food wastage, consider the clever pickle recipe by Prabakaran.
FIRST PUBLISHED18.04.2020 | 09:00 AM IST