Opinion | The happy consequences of abandoning comfort food
Transforming our food has lifted the family's mood and made meal times more exciting
I am a creature of habit, monotony and some determination. In some respects, I am like a goldfish in a bowl. I swim 60 laps of a 25m pool, up and down, up and down. I run the same 190m of our tiny, neighbourhood park until I complete 4km. I can clean dirty plates and dishes, any number of them, one after the other. And I can eat the same things day in and day out.
Before marriage, I would cook 2kg of kheema and eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day until it was over. Usually, this took more than a week, but then what are fridges for? When I got married, my wife—from a family that still hesitates to eat lunch leftovers for dinner—was horrified.
Nearly two decades later, her efforts to get me to change my habits continue. Now, she makes sure fish and meat are divided into parcels of 250g each before going in to the freezer, so I can eat “fresh" food. Sometimes, I rebel: 250g is barely enough for a meal, so I defiantly cook 1kg of fish, saying I intend to share it with my parents or the neighbours. If she is in a mood to relent—which is not often—I revel in the feeling of plenty. You eat it every day if you want, she says, but don’t expect me to. Of course, she is vegetarian, so that means small quantities of vegetables, cooked frequently.
Since she is a light eater, even those small quantities do not get consumed. Again, I am happy to plug away at her leftover paneer or chhole or dal until there’s nothing left. It appears to work out—she gets fresh veggies and I am happy with the leftovers (although she is quite prepared to eat leftovers, now and then). Comfort food is a big thing with us—or was.
As the new year dawned, she declared that she wanted a culinary makeover. “I cannot bear to eat normal food," she now announces whenever I make a suggestion involving comfort food.
Unlike me, the wife is not a creature of habit. She is a crusader against monotony. The only predictability she accepts is the inevitability of our Friday date night, when the eight-year-old rushes out to be with her grandparents for an evening of pizza and television.
The wife needs healthy doses of excitement and newness. She likes sudden holidays, sudden trips to the movies—usually with 15 minutes left for the show to start, with the cinema hall 20 minutes away—and, in general, life lived on the spur of the moment.
So, she is now deep in the process of changing our daily menus to incorporate her new penchant to stray from the culinary normal (breakfast remains unchanged, thankfully). If I suggest my interpretation of paneer—home-made, sautéed quickly and lightly with fresh spices, which she loved when I started making it only last month—she says let’s do paneer skewers. If I suggest a fenugreek dal, a new one that she was appreciative of until recently, she casts a baleful look in my direction.
To be fair, she has taken on herself the task of guiding the boat, as it sets off on this voyage to new culinary horizons—although she isn’t exactly sailing it herself. She’s like an admiral, drawing up battle plans, leaving the fighting to the lower ranks. She diligently watches Instagram videos for inspiration and gets me or our part-time cook to implement her ideas.
So it was recently when she got me to reinterpret one of our standards: roasted vegetables. Normally I use whatever spice or condiment at hand, but this time she found a recipe for a chimichurri sauce, which as far as I can tell is a green marinade used primarily for beef in some parts of Latin America.
I must confess I am inspired and influenced by her relentlessness to find a new normal—or ensure we do not have one. So, I, too, did what I normally do not: I roasted the vegetables with great care, putting them into the oven at different times, so they do not overcook.
Her enthusiasm has rubbed off on me. I find myself wondering what I can do differently with the meat and fish I cook for myself and our daughter. I am varying spices, cooking styles and trying to keep things fresh and new.
I did this recently with that most boring of meat, chicken. The daughter is fed up with its inevitability, but I managed to get her eyes to widen by changing spices and my roasting style—more high heat and blackening than normal.
There is little question the wife’s determination to junk normality is changing our lives. Transforming our food has lifted the family’s mood and made meal times more exciting.
The writer Maya Angelou said, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be." I do not claim our food is amazing, but we are certainly finding out how much better it can be.
Roast vegetables with chimichurri sauce
1 medium zucchini, large pieces
2 sweet potatoes, thick slices
1 onion, quartered
1 red pepper, 1-inch pieces
1 yellow pepper, 1-inch pieces
1 carrot, thick slices
Packet mushroom, chopped lengthwise
Coarsely process in a blender:
1 cup cilantro (or coriander)
4 large cloves garlic
5 tbsp parsley
tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
3 tbsp olive oil
N cup red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
Rub olive oil on foil laid out on a grill tray. Roast sweet potato and carrot—basted with 1 tsp olive oil—for 20 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, turning over once. Add zucchini and peppers and roast for 15-20 minutes, basting with a teaspoon of olive oil. Mix the other vegetables, add mushroom, and finish at 220 degrees Celsius for 5-7 minutes. Remove from oven, toss with chimichurri sauce and serve with bread.
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.