Sunday, June 14, 2020

More cooking experiments

There are times when it’s necessary to find ways to ease boredom, like during the recent Covid-19 lockdown. Other times it’s a good idea to try new things. But it turns out that trying new challenges is also a good way to deal with major life changes. At the very least, it’s something to do, something to fill the time.

During lockdown, I had all sorts of projects, big and small, and I also tried new recipes, and I blogged about all that. All of that has continued into our post-lockdown world. The new recipes in particular, and today’s adventure is about much more than what I actually made.

The photo up top is of an attempt at homemade butter chicken I made today. It’s a dish from the North of India that’s very popular here, and while it’s not particularly good for us, it is yummy. I wanted to try to make it because—well, that’s it: Just because.

Nigel always used to say that he’d never found a butter chicken recipe that was as good as what Indian restaurants made. So when my mother in law found the recipe that Nigel brought back from Australia with him (before we met), I thought that would be a good starting point, and it was. But Nigel was right: It wasn’t as good as restaurant versions.

When I made it the first time last week, I thought it was nice, but I also thought it wasn’t butter chicken. When I went to bed that night, I lay awake and puzzled, as I so often do now, this time about what I could do to improve the recipe. The first thing I thought of was cumin, which wasn’t on the recipe I was given. Then I realised there’s a tandoori taste to the real thing, too. I eventually fell asleep, but, unusually, I also remembered my ideas when I woke up.

When I had the leftovers for my next dinner, I heated it up on the cooktop after adding cumin, and it was definitely better, but still not there. So, I thought about the tandoori part again, and decided to try making my own paste to marinade the chicken in. However, I decided that first I’d try a different recipe with different spices and methods. That’s the one I made today.

The recipe called for the chicken to be marinated in spices and also plain yogurt, which I didn’t have. So, I used milk, since the main point was to surround the chicken in the spices and to keep it moist while it was sitting in the fridge.

There was one spice I’d never heard of: Fenugreek, a spice my usual supermarket didn't stock, even though a New Zealand maker of herbs and spices offers it, and the store had many of the company's other products. I’d read that fenugreek seeds are bitter, and to avoid that they must be dry fried first, then ground, but the more worrying part is that it also turns out it can cause health problems. Still, because I read that the spice added a maple-like flavour, I assumed there must be a way of substituting it.

The substitute I chose was mustard seeds, which I ground in the mortar and pestle. When I added it to the sauce, I added maybe a teaspoon of maple syrup. The result was really good—but not perfect.

So, for the next attempt I’ll try a tandoori paste marinade to see which version I prefer.

The point of all this isn’t what actually I made, but how I got there.

For years I wasn’t particularly interested in cooking, and it was far easier to just make the same things over and over than it was to experiment. The main reason I was reluctant to try to make things was mainly a lack of confidence.

In more recent years, I did start to experiment a bit more, predictably with mixed results. However, when lockdown happened I was bored and looking for different things to do, and cooking was as good as anything else. So, I tried a lot of different recipes, most of which I documented on this blog.

The other thing about all this is that I’ve found myself thinking about how to make things, specifically, what flavours are missing and how I can fix it/improve it, that sort of thing, I’ve never really done that, but Nigel had a natural ability to figure that sort of thing out, and I just assumed I didn’t, right up until I found out that maybe I actually do.

This cooking frenzy is part of a larger thing I’m doing now, namely, doing stuff. During lockdown I learned that keeping busy helped me get through, and it seemed obvious to me that it could help me adjust to this now solitary life, and it’s worked out that way.

It turns out that trying new challenges is a good way to deal with major life changes. At the very least, it’s something to do, something to fill the time. And to get some yummy food, too.

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