A recipe for disaster: when cooking (occasionally) goes wrong
It is probably about time for some nudity, some naked honesty, an offloading, a safe space where I can hopefully be absolved of my most shameful culinary sins. The weight of all those mistakes lifted, like the lid from a pot, the stewing fragrance released into the world. This is an attempt to come out from behind the safety of words, the illusion of faultless cooking, the fallacy of a recipe. It is a delusion to see cooking as an attempt at perfection, when in fact most of the time it will be riddled with mistakes, frustrations and swearing, but what good things aren’t? I was reminded of this fact when working on a recipe. It all became clear because of one salty daal. The first taste of which brought on a Proustian reflection of all my kitchen nightmares, memories and embarrassment. I am asking you, the reader, for empathy and if you can manage it, forgiveness. I am afraid what lies ahead is almost entirely unappetising, but it is necessary to be freed from that most dreaded fear of failure. A culinary catharsis, a liberating experience for us all.
Another weary winter’s day rained itself towards darkness, I saw again the lugubrious inevitability of short afternoons, long overcoats and sharp wind attacking your fingers, neck and head. Headlights from cars only revealed angry drivers, freezing pedestrians and houses shut off from the world. Compressed frustratingly between waking up, commuting, working and sleeping was the opportunity to cook and the prospect of eating something delicious. My first thought upon waking, as it usually is, was ‘what shall I eat today?’ A question routinely mulled over and one so intertwined with mood, weather, and company, that is rarely ever feels monotonous. After great deliberation, and diversions between cuisine, ingredients and how much money was left in the bank I opted for a chana daal. Unpretentious, warming, nourishing and full of beautiful spices; turmeric, cumin seeds, garam masala, mustard seeds, ginger, everything a person needs for a midweek meal. I also planned to make homemade chapatis, lobbed under the grill and slavered with butter.
The expectation of the first mouthful supported me through the day, I sent the ‘menu’ to the flat, who usually arrive back from work to the welcoming smell of a kitchen in working use. The replies were, ‘sounds good’ and ‘not too much chilli’… a resounding endorsement. Little did they know, today they would arrive back not to a warm dinner, but a smashed plate, an inedible pot of daal and a dejected flatmate with his head in his hands.
Ingredients bought, pan heated and onions chopped, I encountered my first mistake, but one which seemed minor. I hadn’t soaked the chana (brown, split, and polished chickpeas), the packet instructions recommended at least two hours, but not to be defeated and under the time pressure of watching ‘Grand Designs: House of the Year’ at eight, I felt ten minutes would suffice. A bad idea. I cooked the onions, low and slow, added the spices, ginger, garlic, a bit of tomato pasta and heated it until it made a paste. It smelt delicious, a heady, earthy, aromatic fragrance swept through the kitchen. My ‘soaked’ chana was ready for cooking and I lobbed them in a pan, I added a teaspoon of turmeric, a bay leaf and some salt.
Some salt… the word ‘some’, entirely unspecific, seemed flexible to me and in a moment of recklessness, I treated this West Bengali dish, like it was Italian. I salted the life out of those chickpeas, the water, like the dead sea, suffocated those defenceless chickpeas, powerless against my apparent will to saturate them in sodium. Blissfully unaware of the culinary crime I had so unwittingly committed, I left the room to let the daal do its thing. I tasted the paste, delicious, a squeeze of lemon, even better, grilled my chapatis, a roaring success, but then I tasted the chickpeas. I held the spoon in my right hand, my bowl in left, ready to serve myself the steaming hot pile of what I believed to be goodness. I began the beautiful motion of lowering a spoon into a pot and sweeping up the sustenance which lies within.
Giving it a taste, I was instantly taken aback, it was emphatically salty, like swallowing a bucket of brine. I didn’t know whether to spit it out, vomit, or swallow the malevolent mouthful, instead, I opted to drop my bowl. The bowl fell and shattered when it hit the floor. The crash and silence after, rendered me shocked. As the atomised parts of the bowl spread themselves out across the kitchen floor, I was transported, by an uncontrollable stream of memory, to a nightmarish phantasmagoria of cooking disasters and not just mine, but seemingly every bad meal I had seen cooked.
I remembered serving Phoebe a bowl of pasta which she ate with impressive monkish discipline. She was late, late for dinner, and the pasta had been sitting in the now-cold water which had cooked it at least half-an-hour earlier. As you can probably guess, the pasta, kept drawing in the water. By the time she had returned, I had lost the will and decided it couldn’t taste that bad. It did. The now mealy white pasta had unforgivingly lost all of its bite and was coated in the starchy cooking water; it was baby food, it slipped off the fork and eventually when it made it to the mouth, the squelching texture was more than I could bear. Phoebe stuck at it, but not without the occasional disconsolate stare into her bowl of worms. I felt an irrepressible sense of shame; I had failed to create, I had induced disgust.
I remembered my Dad preparing dinner, the sound of crashing pans, curses to the Gods and the songs of Pavement weaving its way out of the Kitchen door and through the house. When Dad eventually called us to the table, the meal he served was unforgettable. Sausages were charcoal on the outside and raw in the middle; the mash potato was watery, yet lumpy, a white mound of slurry interrupted by rocks of raw potato; the beans were curiously overcooked, yet, cold, and to top it off, Dad had attempted to hide the offending plate with a healthy covering of HP sauce. He indignantly told us that he enjoyed his plate, but one mouthful had been enough to reach for some bread, butter, and the trusty toaster.
I remembered a punishing spaghetti carbonara made by Phoebe and me, in the nascent days of our relationship and my relationship with cooking. Offering to cook in an attempt to impress, I opted for a pasta I had seen cooked numerous times before. A valuable and critical lesson I had yet to learn was the importance of heat when making a carbonara. Phoebe plunged the pasta into the pan, I threw in the egg and parmesan, but tragically left the heat on. The resulting dish, dry, flecked with indisputably scrambled eggs did not even have a suggestion of that peppery and velvety sauce which is the essence of a good carbonara.
I remembered Rory taking part in a work ‘Bake off’ competition and in a moment of hubris I offered to help. We endeavoured to make a m’hanncha, a North African ‘snake’ cake which is supposed to be made up of a chewy, nutty, fresh citrus flavoured filling and coated in a crispy, golden brown filo pastry. The North African ‘snake’ cake we made was made up of a dense, oily, desiccating and bitter filling and was coated in a seared layer of black barely resembling the filo pastry it was meant to be.
I remembered Phoebe, prone to a kitchen disaster, (including unintentionally using semolina as seasoning instead of salt for a week), promising to cook for me, carefully lowering the shop-bought pizza into the oven and whacking up the heat. Bringing the offending article out of what must have been a fiery inferno, Phoebe presented me with a pizza ruinously burnt on the top, but somehow undercooked on the bottom. The pizza flopped and cracked in an inharmonious amalgamation of a kitchen sin.
I remembered, porridgey couscous, watery porridge, curries with unwelcome consequences, cakes flat, wet or dry, pans dropped, spills mopped, the yell of a burn, the squawk of sliced fingers and curse of a bashed head.
Then, with sudden clarity, I was borne back into the present and the smashed plate seemed entirely inconsequential. The salty daal was just another in a long and growing list of gastronomic disasters. My mind had severed, then stitched together my memories, the seams now forged into one clear thought. These disasters, indisputable failures, normally banished and buried, are intimately connected with the triumphs had in a kitchen. The disgust of a salty daal, only reinforces the joy of a group of friends or family gathering around the fragrance of a successfully seasoned and loved pot. Culinary conquests taken, won and lost, but all assembled as an act of creation, reduced down they are all attempts to make, feed, nourish and taste. Food is possibility, expression and optimism, and should never be quelled by bitterness.
A ‘second-time lucky’ Chana Daal with easy homemade flatbreads
Eating pulses is good for our health, for the health of the soil, and, importantly, they can also be the basis of a colourful collection of delicious meals. This recipe uses dried chickpeas (yes, a few brave souls do escape being blitz into humus) and if you treat them with a little care, it will make a simple, wholesome and low-maintenance meal to break up the mid-week monotony of pasta or potatoes. Luckily, I have made the mistakes for you: make sure you soak them overnight, or in the morning, it will reduce the cooking time and salt to taste after they have been cooked. They should end up soft, but with a little bite. Yum.
Ingredients: 225g Chana daal, 1 big red onion, 2 chili (choose if you want the seeds), 2 cloves of garlic, a good chunk of ginger, 2 big tomatoes, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1tsp garam masala, 1tsp ground cinnamon, rapeseed oil, 750 ml boiled water.
For Flatbreads: 250g organic whole-wheat flour, 250g yoghurt, 1 tsp baking soda. 1
Soak the chickpeas in advance, at last a couple of hours, wash in cold water when ready to use.
Put the chickpeas into a big pan, covered with the boiling water and the add the turmeric. Cook until soft, should take about 45 mins.
Heat up the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, when they start jumping add the chopped onion and fry them nice and slowly for 15 mins making sure not to burn.
Add in the finely chopped garlic and ginger, then after a couple of nicely fragranced minutes, add the tomatoes which you have chopped. When its starts to become paste-like, add the chili, the rest of the spices and a little bit of water.
Mix in the paste to the cooked chana daal. Cover and cook on a very low heat for 5 minutes. Top with chopped coriander or parsley and maybe a bit of yoghurt if it takes your fancy.
Flatbreads to go alongside couldn’t be easier. Mix all the ingredients together, knead for a few minutes, then form into a round. Put in a bowl, cover and leave for an hour.
Divide into six rounds and then flatten with a rolling pin, or wine bottle. Place under the grill, or in a pan.
- Elliot Prior