Sunday, November 18, 2012

Things that make you go hmmm ...

Have you ever read a recipe in a cookbook and said to yourself, "There's no fuckin' way that can work!"?

Happens to the CC all the time. He then ends up yelling at the book which classifies him as one of the crazies but that's him, isn't it?

It comes with experience to all cooks even if you are not familiar with the cuisine in question. It's frequently just a matter of timings which have clearly not been tested and/or are more than a touch speculative. The amount of the sizes could also be all bollocksed to high heaven (tablespoons instead of teaspoons is all too common), or the proportions could be upsized and upchuck-worthy. (4 cups of water in 1 cup of flour will not yield a dough — it will yield a liquid mess!)

Here's a classic blooper from Lathika George's "The Kerala Kitchen".

(In the parlance of our time, this bitch be smokin' some serious crack!)

It's a classic egg curry found all over India. You hard-boil some eggs and separately make a curry. At the end, you cut the eggs length-wise and mix with the curry, re-heat and serve. Hardly complicated.

The trick that makes this specific recipe work is the same trick that makes classic French Onion Soup work. It requires a mass of onions to be browned and then a whole ton of spices and tomatoes are added to it. This turns into a dry curry.

The recipe in the book calls for the onions to be fried for 2-3 minutes and after that, the tomatoes to be cooked for two minutes.

In your fuckin' dreams, lady!

Even twenty minutes is too little for this to work. The last time the CC made a French Onion Soup, it took more than an hour for the onions to do their magic.

This is the principle of IST (Indian Stretchable Time) applied to cooking where five minutes really means fifty. (A lot of cultures have this principle encoded as a joke. There is even the concept of NST used by the "suitable in-crowd" and the CC will not translate that particular one.)

Now admittedly, this stuff is cooked at medium-high heat instead of the relatively gentle burble of the onions for the soup and the soup calls for a vastly larger number of onions but still. There is absolutely no fuckin' way in hell a mass of onions plus tomatoes is going to give up all that moisture in a total of five minutes. Incidentally, that's what frying really is — a precise way to remove moisture.

A significant fraction of this can squarely be blamed not on the author but on the editors. You needn't look towards the travesty of Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. They are just the logical culmination of something that has been going on since Edouard de Pomiane in La Cuisine en dix minutes, ou l'Adaptation au rythme moderne.

We like speed. We like convenience. Cooking can be a chore even for the most committed amongst us. We are, alas, all too human.

Except that Pomiane was a genius. He clearly states what can and can't be hurried up and his entirely elegant solution for "hurrying up" is that if a recipe can't be hurried up, you shouldn't make it or serve it to your guests on a weeknight. Genius!

Pomiane's book is hands-down a work of a master and someone deeply steeped in the art of cooking. You will learn better from him how to make a classic sauce hollandaise than from all the textbooks and French chef's of the world. He has idiot-proofed something that is considered a "junior chef's challenge". (Science is why his technique works and since he was a physician and microbiologist, chances are that he understood in detail what he was doing.)

Editors, listen up! There is no shame in saying that something takes thirty minutes instead of three. There's no fuckin' shame in explaining in simple terms the science behind a recipe. People are smarter than you think and those that are likely to buy an obscure cookbook are much more likely to spend thirty minutes than three.

So don't try and push it. Not only do you get a travesty of a recipe but also you get an inedible fuckin' mess!

Isn't this entirely obvious?

So here's the classic egg curry from Kerala reworked for your benefit.

(And yes, the CC used a timer to time it as opposed to the gormless Ms. George who clearly did not test worth the proverbial Indian dam!)

Egg Curry


6 eggs (hard-boiled)

3-4 cups onions (very thinly sliced)
2 tomatoes (finely diced)

12 curry leaves
1 tbsp ginger (chopped into very thin slivers)
4 cloves garlic (sliced thin)
3-4 chillies slit lengthwise

1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
4 tbsp black pepper


First make the eggs. Cover them in cold water. Bring them to a boil and turn the heat to low. Cook for 8 minutes. Remove and immediately dunk into an ice-bath to cool off.

You will get perfectly hard-boiled eggs without the yolk turning chalky and none of the green sulfurous ring around them.

Peel them and set aside.

Combine the turmeric, salt, chilli powder and black pepper with a few tablespoons of water to make a thick paste. Don't add too much water.

Heat up some oil and when heated (7 mins) dump in the mass of onions. Let fry on a medium-high heat until they change color but are not blackened. Roughly 17 minutes.

Twenty-four minutes and counting.

Dump in the curry leaves, ginger, garlic slit chillies, and let fry for a bit (3 minutes.)

Add the tomatoes and spice paste. You may need to add some water to make sure it doesn't burn. Let cook at a low heat for about 8 minutes until the tomatoes turn saucy.

We're up to 35 minutes now, you clueless bitch!

Cut the eggs length-wise into halves and add them yolk-side up and let them gently heat up to the sauce. About 3 minutes. Serve.

So nearly 40 minutes not counting the time to make the hard-boiled eggs.

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