A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling rather down about my own cooking abilities, given that I live with two professional pizza chefs who regularly whip up delicious, homemade meals with apparent ease. I lived with an ever-present feeling that I paled in comparison with my pastas and sandwiches. But in the grocery store one day, it struck me how I could shed my food self-consciousness: I needed to act like an anarchist in the supermarket.
The plan was to pick things from the shelves that I would like to eat but had never cooked before. When I got home, I would look into the fridge and see the items I’d acquired in this state of madness and get to work.
“I chose vegetables for this anarchic style of shopping because it forces you to get more creative with your cooking, and be healthy at the same time.”
My choices were few, but large in size: two butternut squashes and two aubergines. I had made aubergine parmigiana before, but not very well, and I’d never so much as peeled a butternut squash. I chose vegetables for this anarchic style of shopping because it forces you to get more creative with your cooking, and be healthy at the same time. But also, as a fallback plan, if you roast basically any vegetable with salt and pepper and olive oil for long enough, its flavour will intensify and get crispy and delicious.
I peeled and cubed the squash one night while listening to a lecture on my phone and kept it in the fridge so I could cook it the next day. This split up the work appropriately and made me feel like a capable and wise planner. My flatmate’s boyfriend had benevolently left behind some chopped red onion and day-old white rice. The onions were beginning to perfume the fridge, and the rice was bound to go off, so I felt I should put them to use. I caramelized the red onion with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and tossed in the rice and roasted butternut squash. It looked yummy, and rather colorful, but was lacking distinct flavors. I ground some cumin seeds and coriander seeds in my mortar and pestle (a must-have) and tossed those in. The result was delicious. I think I basically invented a dish. In fact, one of the pizza chefs said the food was “tasty” and “surprisingly good”, if I remember correctly.
The aubergine was more elusive, and sat in my fridge for a while after I bought it, beckoning me to its dark and shiny secrets. I finally gathered up the courage to roast it in the oven so I could have it with pitas and hummus. I sliced it into discs and followed one of the methods I’ve read about reducing their bitterness: salting and pressing them beneath weights. My flatmate soon came over and took over the operation, informing me that I was doing it all wrong (draining them all over the table instead of into a bowl). When the aubergines had been made less bitter, I patted them dry and roasted them in the oven with olive oil and salt. I left them in the oven a bit too long, but they became akin to aubergine chips – delicious, full of flavor, and ready to be put on a pita.
“Cooking even the most simple pasta dish requires some preparation and thought, and it’s much less entertaining. The energy and ego boost you receive from cooking a new dish will propel you for the rest of the week.”
But this kind of cooking takes time out of your week, you say. I don’t have time to peel a butternut squash and learn how to cook it. And don’t even get me started on squeezing an aubergine. Sure, but cooking even the most simple pasta dish requires some preparation and thought, and it’s much less entertaining. The energy and ego boost you receive from cooking a new dish will propel you for the rest of the week. And when it’s good, it’s great, and it’s yours. Also, who doesn’t have time these days? It’s lockdown, roast some squash!
Fresh from my first anarchic expedition, I embarked on a second: this time, I bought tahini, chickpeas, and black eyed peas. I confess – there was a recipe for black eyed pea stew which I was following. This was a somewhat more informed adventure. But still, these ingredients supplied an abundance of potential meals to come (especially the tahini, which can be eaten with tons of meals and made into lots of sauces). I came home with my new beige bounty and, over the week, got to work. I made spicy goan stew from Ruta Kahate’s book Five Spices, Fifty Dishes: a coconut-y, tomato-y, flavoursome dish that goes well with white rice. With the tahini and chickpeas, I got to making some hummus from scratch. Side note, all of these recipes I either found in cookbooks from my mom or online – there’s lots of ways to find out what to make with your found ingredients if you get to looking. I simmered the chickpeas over the stove until they got nice and soft and in the meantime, crushed up garlic with lemon juice in the mortar and pestle. I then pulverized the chickpeas bit by bit with the mortar along with a couple spoonfuls of tahini, drizzled olive oil, and topped it off with cumin and paprika – boom.
“If you choose a few random, but exciting, items to add to your weekly menu each time you shop, your capacity to make nice food will naturally increase.”
This freestyle method of shopping is nothing to be embarrassed by. In fact, the book I mentioned earlier, Five Spices: Fifty Dishes, is a professional example of such a simple, yet smart, cooking approach. Ruta Kahate says, if you get a few key (perhaps new) spices in your cabinet, you can use them over and over again in unique ways. Suddenly, your repertoire has expanded tenfold. Similarly, if you choose a few random, but exciting, items to add to your weekly menu each time you shop, your capacity to make nice food will naturally increase. You may not be great at it initially, but the key to cooking with confidence is simply not to care too much about perfection. This is what it means to be an anarchist in the supermarket and in the kitchen. At the end of the day, I may not be the best chef in the house, but I’m a happy one.