Cooking for Sixteen

June 3, 2008

It’s not something I do on a regular basis, cooking for 16. Not even when six of them are at or below 3 years of age. But we decided it was high time that we invited some of our friends for a homemade dinner, so that’s what I did this last weekend – cooked for us and four families, each of them with one child.

Normally, we should have had the dinner on Saturday, but I thought I’d need more time than that to get organised, so we had it on Sunday instead. It was just as well. Years ago, when we had a more debonair lifestyle, I could easily rustle up dinner for 16 (adults, mind you) in one day of frenetic activity. Now, I just can’t. Call it old age, or blame it on the kids, but I seem to have reduced the pace of my activities. Of course, I don’t personally think this is a bad thing – I used to live life way too fast in those days. Back then, I always wanted to squeeze in the maximum number of activities in the minimum possible time. Nowadays, I’ve begun to think that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly, to extract the maximum pleasure with the least possible effort.

So, I started cooking for Sunday’s dinner on Saturday afternoon. First on the agenda (as also on the menu) was Mayonnaise. Foodwise, there are few greater pleasures than homemade mayonnaise, the way my mother used to make it, back in the days when she used to make such things. Who would think that raw egg yolk (yuck!) and raw oil (ugh!) could combine to make such a divine sauce? And, as an aside, whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned, handheld eggbeater? I thoroughly disdain the use of an electric egg-beater and ever since our stick blender went defunct, I have nothing in my kitchen that electrically mixes, beats, thrashes, grinds or in any other way perturbs the raw ingredients that I wish to use in my cooking. So I was stuck with using a spring-type egg whisk, which is a lousy implement to use for something as effort-intensive as Mayonnaise. However, no effort is too great when you’re cooking to impress, so 45 minutes were spent wielding that whisk, at the end of which, voila! Mayonnaise!

I don’t make mayonnaise very often, and it’s quite a temperamental thing to make, so I’m never very confident whether it’s going to oblige or not. So once I had gotten Amit to taste it and declare that it met the mark, it was with a sigh of relief that I shoved the bowl into the fridge.

The next item to attack was the chocolate cake. This was not a problem – it is an item I have practised many, many times over the years. This time, I took a slight risk and let Amit mix it according to my instructions. Thankfully, it turned out fine despite this.

The greater risk with choco cake, even one mixed by Amit, is having it around for a clear 24 hours before the guests arrive. Naturally, there is the extreme temptation to take just a small piece out of it. Just to taste, you know. One little piece wouldn’t hurt.

However. We kept an eagle eye on each other and issued stern admonitions whenever temptation seemed about to get the better of us, and somehow the cake survived intact and un-depleted.

After the cake, I quickly chopped up some veg for a salad/raita. And finally, before going to bed, I managed not to forget to soak the channa.

On Sunday morning, I pressure cooked the channa at 8 a.m., then waited till all 4 of us had breakfasted before starting the real nitty-gritty of cooking. First I chopped a mountain of ginger, garlic, onion, and tomato. Then I assembled the masala for the channa, and the matar-paneer sequentially. Then I deep-fried the paneer and dunked it into the matar-masala.

Next I tackled the chicken, which I marinated in curd spiced with lots of dry masala, and cooked in the marinade without making the slightest additional effort. Surprisingly it turned out quite delicious.

Then I quickly boiled some boring bland dal for the kids.

Now all that was left was the fish, which I was planning to crumb fry, and it was still only lunch time. Since the fish was resting coolly in the fridge, I decided to leave it there and prepare it sometime around 6.30 in the evening, just prior to the frying.

I should have known better.

I had a quiet and relaxed afternoon – something that has never happened to me ever before on the day of a party. I should have known then, that things were bound to unravel later.

It was almost 5, when Amit and I got around to unwrapping the fancy crockery and cutlery. The crockery was fine, but the cutlery… Well, the cutlery was something special. It was gifted to us by my maternal grandmother and my youngest aunt on our wedding. My maternal grandfather had been in what later became the diplomatic services, and had been Ambassador to various countries. I don’t know whether that has anything to do with the cutlery, but it just gives you an idea of the kind of life they led back in those days. Now the cutlery set was sterling silver. It was a made-to-order set, and had the “family crest” (I feel so pretentious just using those words) engraved on every piece. It was a 12-place set, starting with soup spoons and going right through to the tiny coffee spoons. There were even four lovely serving spoons, butter knives, cake forks (I think?), and something that looked like a salad fork. All of these carefully wrapped up in separate pieces of faded green felt (or something) cloth, tied up with ribbons, with the name of the jeweller still legible on the wrapping.

I hardly ever use this cutlery set – our daily use cutlery stands in a cutlery stand close to the dining table. It’s a pretty set, but absolutely mass-manufactured and mundane in comparison to this silver work of art that I was unwrapping and taking out lovingly.

Naturally, despite the faded green felt (or whatever) wrapping, the silver had tarnished. Some pieces were worse than others. Obviously, I couldn’t let it go like that. So, I quickly tracked down the Silvo, found some relatively clean rags, and got to work polishing.

Polishing silver is yet another job that is best done in a slow and leisurely manner. It’s a labour of love and the joy of seeing the tarnish vanish and the silver come to life with a sparkle is more than enough reward for one’s efforts. So, though the fish was still waiting to be floured, egged, and crumbed, I promised myself an hour devoted to the silverware.

I hadn’t got even halfway through, when the phone rang. The first of our guests were calling to say that they were on their way and would be here in half an hour. Half an hour! I yelped as soon as I had put the phone down. The invitation was for 7.30 and now it was only 6. I abandoned the unpolished cutlery post haste and rushed off to get the girls decked up in their party clothes. Then I started on the fish. Getting 35 fish fingers crumbed and ready to fry is not a task that can be completed in 15 minutes even if you wanted to. It was impossible to have it done before the guests arrived, and sure enough, I was still at it when the bell rang.

Of course, these folks are very close friends, so it really didn’t matter that I was still in the kitchen with raw egg and fish on my hands… well, that is, it didn’t matter too much…

The rest of the day went by in a blur. People arrived, kids played, a drink was spilt (but the glass survived), somebody wanted food, somebody wanted ketchup, somebody wanted ghee, somebody wanted warm water with their whisky (Black Label! with warm water! it’s a crime, I’m sure, in some countries), somebody wanted a changing mat, somebody wanted a diaper disposal bag, somebody almost choked on a fish bone, somebody got high and went to sleep under the pretext of putting the baby to bed… it was chaos. Amid the chaos, 35 fish fingers, 24 tiny veg samosas, and lots of french fries were consumed, though admittedly the twins were to blame for a large part of it. Dinner was served at 10, by which time two families had packed up their kids and gone home, carrying doggie bags!

It was 2.30 a.m. before we had recovered from the mess and got the house straightened out. I’m not sure whether I’d rate the party an unqualified success, but it was one heck of an eye-opener. Partying with kids is a whole different ball game. Phew.

Now I just have to finish polishing the silver, then I can pack it all away for another couple of years or so.

Culinary Delight

May 4, 2008

Sometimes I surpass myself.

Doesn’t this chicken look delicious? I thought it did – it tasted just as good, too. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t be saying it myself, but you see, there wasn’t anyone else around to say it for me.

Sunday evening. Alone. Amit travelling. Yeah, again. I wasn’t much in the mood to cook, naturally. Still, it was Sunday and there was some chicken. So – a simple grilled chicken, even grilled in curd, seemed too boring. Curry, then? I reluctantly chopped an onion, tomato, a load of garlic, a tiny sliver of ginger (all I could find in the fridge), added a lot of peppercorn and a bit of cinnamon, and tossed it all into the pan. When it began to stick and burn, I added the chicken. When that began to stick and burn, I scraped out the leftovers of the twins’ special full-fat yoghurt (Nandini’s – it is really delicious) and threw that in as well. Oh, and, somewhere along the way, I added all the powders, of course – jeera, dhania, haldi (cumin, coriander, turmeric) and a bit of Bolst’s curry powder. Salt – goes without saying. To my surprise, it turned out way better than the “passable” I’d thought I was heading for. I’m good!

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