There comes a time in most foodies’ lives when they lose interest in restaurant food. I recall when it happened to me and my wife: The third week of February, 2010.
That’s when our son was born.
But being the frequent eater-outers that we were, we didn’t give in without a fight. We managed a few dinners when he was still just a few months old, carrying him into a restaurant in a carry-cot, where he would blissfully sleep through sizzler smoke, loud background music and rambunctious conversations from neighbouring tables.
Then, he grew up. And stayed awake. And wanted to play with the cutlery. And pull down the tablecloths with the glasses on top. And get down from his chair (which, unlike at home, have no restraining belts) and run around the restaurant. So we kind of gave up. And our monthly dining-out budget morphed into his monthly diaper budget.
I guess that’s when we decided we had to replace eat-out with cook-in more often. The food we focussed on was reflective of our pre-parenthood restaurant choices: Roughly an 80:20 split between European and South-East Asian cuisines.
Now that we’re able to go back to eating out again, thanks to our son’s daytime nanny who’s available to babysit on the occasional evening, we’re not all that thrilled. Probably because diligent home cooking with quality ingredients easily beats the pants off most restaurant food. That, or Bangalore restaurants have become much less dependable at the Rs 1,000-1,500 meal-for-two price point.
Anyway, baby or not, cooking at home the kind of stuff you usually eat outside is a good habit, not least because, in the words of Calvin’s dad, “it builds character”! It’s usually tastier, cheaper and ends up training your palate for the subtleties of good food.
And the fundamental ingredient of a DIY gourmand’s kitchen? A healthy quantity of good stock in the freezer.
Good stock is quite simply the magical ingredient that can be combined with any number of starting raw materials—Italian rice, fish fillets, minced meat or even just random vegetables—into seriously tasty dishes.
Because my wife is vegetarian, we opt for a vegetarian stock which is a couple of notches less flavourful than a chicken one, but still a delightful ingredient.
Making it is relatively simple. Dice anywhere from 500-750 gm of onions, carrots and celery in a 2:1:1 mix. This mix, the mirepoix, is the core of the stock’s flavour. Combine it with one or two chopped leeks, a chopped fennel bulb (if you don’t find it, skip it—no big deal) and a couple of tomatoes and turnips (even parsnips will do), diced. The best part is none of the vegetable ingredients need to be super-fresh, even stuff a couple of weeks old and shrivelled will do.
Sweat them all together for about 10 minutes in a large heated pot with 50-60 ml of whatever cooking oil you use.
Then do your bit for India’s wine industry—add a quarter litre of white wine (I’m no oenophile, but, frankly, cooking is about the only use I find for most Indian wines) with three to four litres of water and a sachet d’epices, comprising a bay leaf, half-a-teaspoon of dried thyme and some crushed peppercorns and about seven to eight parsley stems (they have a stronger flavour than the leaves) tied in a cheesecloth (a tea ball will do). Its job is to infuse specific spice flavours into foods like soups or stocks. A variation of the sachet is a bouquet garni, where a few more herbs like parsley, thyme, basil or rosemary are tied together into a bundle.
Let everything come to a boil, then reduce and simmer for about 45 minutes. Cool, strain and pour it into multiple plastic containers before freezing it. Since you can’t part-thaw frozen stock, freeze them in multiple ice trays and break apart as many stock cubes as you need for a meal. This batch of stock should last you anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, depending on usage.
Home cooking sometimes helps clear prejudices against certain dishes. For instance, much as I loved the Pixar animated movie Ratatouille and the delightful use a simple peasant meal of stewed vegetables in the movie’s central argument, I found the actual dish too tomato-ey and lacking in distinct flavours.
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