Don't make these basic mistakes while cooking Western or continental food, says Zelda Pande.
Photograph: Dominick Reuter/Reuters
Have you recently taken to rolling up your sleeves, getting out your non-stick pans and chef's hat to start experimenting with a few continental dishes?
Or cooking pasta here or a chicken roast there and getting good results?
Or, maybe, you want to begin dabbling now?
To make your food journey more flavourful, here are a few common mistakes you need to avoid:
1. EVO oil
Olive oil is considered one of the top heart healthy foods. It also is one of the planet's most tasty oils.
But remember that's extra virgin olive oil (EVO).
Are you buying the right olive oil? Or are you using cheap, massage-oil quality olive oil in your beautiful, fresh salad? Always purchase extra virgin olive oil.
Also, remember these rules: Don't heat olive oil to smoking point or it loses its natural qualities.
If you plan to saute vegetables or garlic in olive oil, use them together so the oil doesn't get a chance to smoke.
Avoid using heat that is too high.
And don't forget that olive oil gets rancid quickly in our warm climate (even after a few weeks) if not stored in the fridge or consumed quickly.
2. Al dente = To the tooth
Many of us like our rice baby soft, digestible without chewing. Think of our khichdis, dahi rice or lachko dal bhaats -- they are all mushy.
But pasta is not cooked in the same way. It is not Maggi.
There has to be a bite to your pasta, hence the note in most recipes to cook the pasta al dente, which means not too soft.
Follow the directions on the packet while cooking pasta; ie the time given and stick to it! Use a timer on your watch or mobile phone. Don't overcook.
Keep a colander (channi) ready to drain the pasta and a little butter or olive oil to moisten it.
Even a minute of overcooking makes the pasta lose its taste. Pasta is meant to be slightly chewy.
And rice for a continental dish, be it a risotto or a vegetable/prawn fried rice, should not be sticky; the grains should be separate and not overly soft.
3. Don't kill the dish with dry spices
The two dried spices that find their way into most Western food you have occasion to sample in many a restaurant (yup, they don't know better either) or at someone's home in India are oregano and thyme.
And there is always way, way too much of it.
Thyme and oregano are very strong spices that need to be used very judiciously, in small pinches. They should not be the overriding taste in your dish.
You are not making Indian food or preparing a tadka. Western food is much lighter on the use of spice.
Please note: If you are using one of those mixed dried herb concoctions found in HyperCity or top-end Indian grocery stores, they may have high amounts of oregano and thyme too, so use cautiously.
4. Fresh green herbs are the backbone of continental food
As unpalatable as dried herbs like thyme and oregano are, you can’t get enough of green herbs for your mashed potatoes, continental chicken or Pasta Marinara. Always opt for fresh herbs.
Fresh basil (discard stems). Well chopped green parsley leaves (no stems). Finely cut celery (discard leaves).
Even fresh thyme is a far nicer spice than dried thyme, adding a gentle flavour if used carefully. A number of these herbs are now available with your bhajiwallah.
Others can be found in specialist grocers like Nature's Basket or can be ordered online.
5. Lal mirchi is not the be all and end all!
So often the Pasta Arrabiatas you have eaten, even in tony restaurants, leave you panting and running for water.
Yes, we Indians like our spice. And our fusion. But delicately-cooked continental food does not call for heaps of lal mirchi or chilli flakes.
If you want a little more theekha, resort to a dash of Tabasco or a teaspoonful of mustard (or the Bengali kashundi that adds a lovely flavour) or a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.
Or just a tiny, tiny amount of chilli flakes.
6. Important ingredients to keep handy and how to store
Western food is as easy to improvise with as Indian food. But you need to keep a few ingredients at hand, stored in a way that they don't get stale or vermin-ridden.
- Extra virgin olive oil (in the fridge!).
- Bottled green or black olives (once opened, in the fridge).
- Maida (keep bug free).
- Good quality mustard paste (once opened, store in the fridge).
- A little bit (100 gm) of fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (stored in the freezer).
- Peppercorns. A nice vinegar.
- Soy sauce.
- Red, plump firm tomatoes; choose well.
- Fresh herbs.
- Spring onions.
- Green garlic and chives in season.
- A dry white cooking wine (nothing expensive).
- Different types of pasta (if you don’t eat frequently store in the fridge to prevent weevils/bugs/dun).
You can use any or all of these ingredients, supplemented with fresh veggies or meat/chicken, to make an eclectic salad, a delicious cream of veggie/chicken soup or a pasta or grilled wonders.
7. Cheese is a tough call
The better the cheese, the better the dish. But cheese, even the new artisanal Indian cheeses from Kodaikanal or ABC Farms, is rather expensive in India. And too much cheese is not healthy.
The best way out is to mix cheeses – fine cheese with the more industrial varieties. Let a typical grated Amul or Britannia be the main cheese you might use in a bake or white-sauce based pasta or chicken.
But add a little fine cheese – like a fresh grated Parmesan/Emmental or a dollop of feta -- while finishing off the dish or for garnish.
You can also supplement/substitute some of the cheese requirement in a recipe with a little mashed paneer or hung curd (dahi, hung for a few hours in a soft cloth, to remove the water).
Also remember to grate cheese when cold or it becomes a sticky mess. Once grated, store it cold till ready to use.
8. Balance the vegetables/meat to the pasta/rice
If you are cooking a pasta or an herb rice, remember the amount of vegetable or meat/chicken you are adding should not be equal to or more than the rice or pasta. It should be considerably less.
A well-made mixed vegetable pasta, for instance, should not be 50 per cent vegetable and 50 per cent pasta. The proportions are more like ¼: ¾. The same for a rice you might be making.
9. Trim the fat
Cleaning meat/chicken for a casserole or a bake or a pasta you are planning to prepare is very important, especially trimming the excess fat.
Certain cuts of mutton/lamb and pork will have more fat, which you will want to get rid of.
It is also important to physically remove unwanted bits and wash well.
10. Don't overcook!
There is a tendency to overcook meat and chicken. Overcooked meat is hard, tough and rubbery. In a word: inedible!
And over-boiling the chicken you are cooking for sandwiches or a salad or a pasta makes it stringy.
It is equally dangerous is to not cook it enough.
The key is to follow the timing in the recipe very precisely. Note the timings that worked for you, so you get them down pat for future reference.
If possible, get a meat thermometer.
The same goes for a lot of the vegetables used in continental food.
Cook, grill or steam asparagus, mushroom, zucchini, broccoli, beans and carrots sparingly, lightly. You don't want mush; you need texture and taste.
Zelda Pande has been cooking Italian and continental/Western food for 30 years and makes soups, pastas or salads almost daily.