There are such great recipes out there on the internet, and like you, I scan through scores of them before finally zeroing in on something that excites me. It doesn’t always work, and what seems great in theory, you realise, still misses that boom flavour that you’ll need to quickly add or subtract to rescue mealtime before your family gets to the table. For me, this happens somewhere towards the end of the cooking process, and I don’t let that underwhelm me in any way. I stow away sauces to liven up stir-fries, masalas that I can heat up with ghee to add sparkle to an underwhelming dal, or serve with achars that will probably overpower everything else. Whatever it may be, coming back from cooking disasters can be tough, but not impossible.
These three recipe ideas came from different sources- Peter Gordon, Fuchsia Dunlop, some talented housewife from England, maybe- and I really liked the sound of their dishes. When I did set out to make them, I tweaked each of them to suit my needs, thus birthing new recipes that sprang to life the second I realised “hey, maybe I could do this differently”. The moment you understand what a certain ingredient can be swapped for, without taking away from the original idea of the dish and more so, building on it to suit your own palate, can you truly overcome your fear of cooking. Of course, a well stocked larder is Godsend if you’re reworking a recipe, but I find that with a bit of planning, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.
The following are recipes for a Spinach and Preserved Lemon Couscous, a Bok Choy with Dried Prawns stir-fry and a Lemongrass spice paste that can be quickly heated through with coconut milk for an anytime soup fix.
The original Peter Gordon recipe, was for a Kale and Preserved Lemon couscous, but I wanted to use up the frozen chopped spinach that we like to hoard in our freezer for anytime Sindhi saibhaji or Palak Paneer. This recipe also works well with Swiss Chard and I find that adding some roasted walnuts, or really any dried fruits you have lying around will make it taste way better. Experiment with raisins here, and chopped dates, now that I think about it, might taste delicious too. Serve with some mushrooms and a side dip of tahini (2 tbsp), lemon juice (1/2 tbsp- 1 tbsp) and greek yoghurt (200g). Plus, this is a great way to get everyone to eat their greens without throwing up a fuss. Also, a naughty riff on this would be to use a spicy nimbu ki achar in place of the preserved lemon.
Spinach 250g, steamed until wilted, then refreshed under cold water and put into an ice bath till needed
Mint a small bunch of leaves
Extra virgin olive oil 2 tbsp
Cous cous 3/4th cup
Salt 1 tsp
Chilli powder 1/2 tsp
Preserved Lemon or Whole Nimbu Ki Achar 1 lemon
Dates 2, chopped finely
Mix together the couscous with a teaspoon of salt and the chilli powder. Pour in 1 cup of hot water and cover the pan and let it swell.
Drain the spinach from the ice bath, and toss into a food processor together with the mint leaves. Blitz once, pour in the extra virgin olive oil and blitz again. Do not puree this till it is smooth. You want some sizeable bits of green in there.
Cut the preserved lemon and let its juices run into a bowl. Scoop out the flesh and squeeze to get any excess liquid out and discard the flesh. Chop the rind of the lemon and mix together with the juice.
Fluff up the couscous and stir in the blitzed greens and the lemon mixture. Finish with the chopped dates and serve with a tahini and yoghurt dip on the side (recipe in the write-up above).
This recipe for bok choy and dried prawns is so simple that it feels weird even penning it. The dried prawns are rehydrated in the Chinese rice wine available to us locally, then the same liquid is added to the wok during the cooking process. Since the prawns are salty by themselves, you may want to hold back on the salt. Add a clove of garlic or two here, maybe some chopped scallions if you like, a bit of soy sauce mixed into the cornflour and water to finish, perhaps? Less is more here and it really works wonders.
Bok choy 2, small sized, roughly chopped
Dried Prawns 2 heaped tablespoons, not very small. Try to find medium-sized ones
Rice wine 2 tbsp
Garlic 2 cloves, smashed
Scallions 1 whole, chopped (optional)
Light Soy sauce 1 tsp
Cornflour 1/4 tsp, mixed with one teaspoon cold water
Salt if required
In a bowl combine together the dried prawns with some warmed rice wine. Cover and set aside for half an hour. After they have been refreshed, drain them but don’t throw away the water.
Combine the light soy sauce and cornflour in a bowl and set aside.
Heat oil in a wok till smoking point and fry the dried prawns together with the minced garlic and scallions if adding. Next, add in the bok choy and stir fry it till wilted. Pour the soaking solution for the prawns (about 2 tbsp worth) and cover with a lid to cook the bok choy evenly, for about a minute.
Remove the lid and add in the whisked cornflour and soy sauce mix. Give it all a good toss till all the greens are done, and take it off the heat. Serve immediately as it loses flavour the longer it sits.
I love the lemongrass that’s coming into the markets right now. The bulbs might not be much to look at but they’re so fragrant and fun to work with that even after so many years of making various Thai dishes, I’ll always have a fondness for it. That being said, lemongrass in soup has the same kind of soothing effect on me that a chicken broth would when I’m down with a nasty bout of the sniffles. You can say this instant spice paste was on its way to becoming a Thai curry, but changed its mind halfway and decided to become soup instead. The flavours are still familiar and apart from the lemongrass, everything else requires minimal opening of spice jars and the refrigerator.
For the spice paste, blitz together the following:
Ginger 5 cm-long, peeled and sliced
Red onion 1, small, roughly chopped
Garlic 4-5 cloves
Coriander seeds 1 tbsp, dry roasted (do this quickly in a microwave with 2x 15 second rounds)
Lemongrass 2 bulbs, outer leaves trimmed, base trimmed, cut into large chunks and bruised
Bird’s eye chillies 3-4
Coriander leaves and stalks a good bunch
Salt 1 tsp
Turmeric powder 1 tsp
Honey 2 tbsp
Lemon 1, juiced
Freeze if not using right away, but if you are, then this amount of spice paste can be combined with two packets of coconut milk, plus one small tetra pack worth of water and slow-simmered till done. Adjust for salt. Garnish with more coriander leaves and boiled eggs, like I did.