I found out recently what kind of cook I am. I hadn’t thought of labeling myself. If anything, I would say that I was modestly eclectic — cooking with the best from what is around me. My family, however, considers me a consummate refrigerator chef. Let’s look into the fridge and see what I can make for dinner. Hmm, we have some leftover pasta, a half jar of peanut butter and apple slices. Excuse me while I go and pick up Indian.
This is what I might refer to as aspirational cooking. I learned recently that this is a term given to those of us who regularly buy cookbooks. I have hundreds, each containing far more recipes than I will ever cook. I have enough recipes for years of dinners with a new dish every day. There is no way that I will cook all of these, despite whatever aspirations I had when I bought the books. One book is taken off the shelf only for a French lamb casserole. Others reveal the perfect technique for Indian masala or slow-rise pizza dough. These books get stains on select pages; the remaining pages might as well be blank.
I do this because I know that one of the benefits of urban living is that I can always revert to Plan B, otherwise known as takeout. I remember being invited to dinner at an upscale condo in New York City’s Tribeca neighbourhood, a few years back. There were plates of cheese, vegetables, crackers, and some very good wine, but something was missing: dinner. After a couple of hours of noshing, the hostess asked us what kind of food we wanted and, to my surprise, brought out a platter of menus. Plan B, it turned out, was her Plan A for refined dining. This, I learned, is common practice.
My NY hostess may aspire to serving curries, empanadas or gravlax but thankfully she doesn’t have to actually make them.
Every kitchen is fraught with danger. Why cook when you might not cook the right thing? What happens if one of your party proclaims an allergy to shellfish, another says she is lactose intolerant, two more arrive proclaiming the virtues of the wheat belly diet and you’ve spent the whole day preparing Joe Beef’s doubly rich spaghetti homard lobster? The aspirational chef may wish for a fine dining experience, but will settle for not having people die at the dining table.
So, after much discussion, we made extensive dietary notes about those in our party and a few of us marched down the street to a nearby Pakistani place. The restaurant was the size of a shoebox and smelled wonderful. There was a counter but no one was actually eating there. Food was going out by the bagful. We left with several containers of meat kebabs, rotis, dal, rice pulao and vegetable curries. There were no leftovers.
A good cook may start with inspiration but will settle for aspiration. Either way, no one goes hungry.
Pumpkin Curry Soup
Nov. 1 is the best day to harvest pumpkins. Supermarkets and farmers’ markets are practically giving them away and there may even be a few post-Halloween ones left un-scorched on your block. We get ours, one way or another, carve it into large chunks and freeze it. During the rest of the year, we take out several slices and Celina makes this wonderful soup:
Slowly cook a sliced medium-sized onion in 1-1/2tbs. oil for about 6 minutes, until soft. Add 1/2tsp. salt, 1 mashed clove of garlic, pinch of white pepper, and 1 bay leaf. Cook this for another minute. Add a diced celery rib, 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) each of cubed peeled pumpkin and butternut squash, 2 tsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. coconut curry, 1-1/2cups (1/3 liter) water and 4c. (1 liter) chicken or vegetable broth. For a thicker soup, add a couple of cubed potatoes. Bring everything to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 25 min. or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Let the soup cool and purée in a Cuisinart. Taste and add salt as needed.