The Flavour Approach- Why granny’s cooking leaves you craving

The Flavour Approach ………………. Why granny’s cooking leaves you craving? There is some truth in the myth that you simply cannot match the brilliance and magic of your grandma’s culinary skills. The standard excuse is, she was a sly creature who never revealed the cryptic key to her secret recipes. Maybe, but not entirely. I bet, even if you coaxed her into divulging with her clandestine witchcraft, you would never be able to meet such exacting standards. Why? …………… Because she applied the scientific principles to her art through time-tested trial and error, although possibly not knowing the science behind it.

In this write-up, I shall try to explain the flavour approach through a few recipes to make you understand how by applying the basic principles of chemistry and techniques you can flourish by ending up with a product of consistent superlative quality. And I assure you, you will stand out from the rest of the crowd.

But before going into the recipes (click here to try my other recipes), we must understand our shortfalls. Let’s accept the undeniable. The real difference is the technique. And “technique” is the application of science. You cannot suddenly learn in a week what your grandma picked up after years in the kitchen. No, not even if you passed out with top grades from a renowned culinary college. Nor can you match the skills of a great chef like Imtiaz Qureshi or Ghulam Qureshi. Those blokes who hail from the family lineage of royal chefs of Lucknow picked up the techniques even before they could say “Mama”.

But there is a hack. Though they do not think it that way, the great traditional cooks always encrypt in the kitchen what can be decrypted by science. Understand the science and you can definitely be a better cook than what you had been.

The current trend of using fancy but deceitful words like “molecular gastronomy” or “molecular mixology” are nothing but devious marketing gimmickry by the charlatans and the dubious paid media. They confuse the public and enhance the optics to increase sales volumes without ever explaining how the molecules of different chemicals present in food and drinks interact under different circumstances to produce different colours, textures, flavours, aromas, etc.

The renowned food writer Harold McGee pioneered the science behind cooking techniques which was later popularised by the Michelin three-star chef Heston Blumenthal. And now, Nik Sharma of Indian descent has done a wonderful job. Nik’s work, thankfully, is not meant for the science geeks, but for the home cooks. Unlike McGee, Nik, instead of making the science too technical and impenetrable for the layman, has made it interesting and enjoyable. He says, “Flavour = Emotion + Sight + Sound + Mouthfeel + Aroma + Taste”. And I quite agree. The recipes I am sharing here have been tried and tested by me over many days. I can vouch that after I understood the science, and applying the same in practice I am a much better cook now than I was ten years back.

Cucumber + Roasted Corn Salad

Ingredients

For the salad

  • English cucumber (diced)- 300 g
  • Sweet corn kernels- 200 g
  • Refined oil (or any neutral oil)- 1 Tbsp
  • Onions (cut into thin rings)- 60 g
  • Coriander leaves- 2 Tbsp
  • Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)- 2 Tbsp

For the dressing

  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 60 ml
  • Black mustard seeds- 1 Tsp
  • Worcestershire sauce- 75 ml
  • Honey- 1 Tsp
  • Red chilli flakes- 1 Tsp
  • Ground black pepper- 1/2 Tsp
  • Salt
The Flavour Approach
Cucumber, sweet corn and pepitas provide the crunch and texture to this salad.
Sweet corn and honey add a hint of sweetness.
Extra-virgin olive oil forms the foundation of the emulsion and Worcestershire sauce gives a kick of sourness and umami. 
  1. Heat a skillet over medium heat and coat it with half the refined oil.
  2. Sear the sweet corns on the skillet until they develop deep char marks on the sides.
  3. Remove the corns from heat and let it cool. Place them in a large mixing bowl along with cucumber.
  4. Toast the pepitas on medium heat till they just start to brown. Add the pepitas to the mixing bowl.
  5. To prepare the dressing, heat the remaining half of the refined oil and add the mustard seeds and fry till they start to sputter and become fragrant.
  6. Remove from heat and pour the mustard along with the oil into a small mixing bowl.
  7. Add extra-virgin olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, honey, red chilli flakes and black pepper and whisk to form an emulsion. Season with salt.
  8. Pour the dressing over the ingredients in the large mixing bowl and fold to coat evenly.
  9. Serve immediately.

Herb + Paneer Pulao (the flavour approach)

Ingredients

  • Basmati Rice- 2 cups (400 g)
  • Boiling Water- 4 cups
  • Refined oil- 60 ml
  • Ground cloves- 4 nos.
  • Ground cinnamon- 1/2 tsp
  • Ground green cardamom- 1/2 tsp
  • Ground black pepper- 1/2 tsp
  • Halved and sliced white onion- 200 g
  • Fresh ginger peeled and grated- 1 no. (1” long)
  • Garlic cloves peeled and minced- 6 nos.
  • Green chillies minced- 2 nos.
  • Salt- to taste
  • Paneer- 250 g (cut into 1/2-inch cubes)
  • Chopped coriander leaves- 1/4 cup (packed)
  • Chopped mint leaves- 1/4 cup (packed)
  • Fresh lime juice- 50 ml
  • Lime wedges- for garnish
The Flavour Approach
If you follow the right steps, you can make this rice dish extremely aromatic and flavourful. 
Always use aged Basmati; rice that is labelled at least one year old. Rinsing the rice gently removes the impurities and the fine dust of starch that is usually present. This starch, if present during cooking will produce a sticky texture which is not at all desirable. Frying the rice in oil and resisting the urge to stir the rice too much during cooking will give you fluffy fully cooked rice grains that are separate and delicately tender.
Chop the herbs and grind the spices just before you cook. This will help produce a more intense fragrance and flavour from the herbs and spices. Frying the spices in hot oil aids release the aromatic chemicals.
Add fresh lime juice towards the end of the preparation of this dish. If added early the acid will lose its citric aroma.
Halloumi is a good substitute for paneer, as it is firm and will not disintegrate on heating. But, keep in mind, it is a bit salty. So, you may need to adjust your seasoning accordingly. 
  1. Rinse the rice in a fine mesh sieve under running water. Transfer in a large bowl and soak in 4 cups of water for 30 minutes.
  2. Heat oil in a large saucepan to medium heat. Add cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper and fry for a few seconds till they become aromatic. Be careful with the spices as they tend to get burnt very quickly.
  3. Add sliced onions and sauté till they become light golden brown. Add ginger and garlic and green chillies until fragrant.
  4. Drain the rice and fry along with the above till the rice grains become opaque.
  5. Add 4 cups of boiling water, season with salt and bring to boil. Lower the heat and bring it to a gentle simmer. Resist your urge to stir the rice while simmering.
  6. While the rice is simmering, preheat an oven to 190⁰C and keep it ready.
  7. Cook the rice till most of the water has evaporated (water should just be barely visible oozing out through the grains of rice).
  8. Remove from heat.
  9. Seal the top of the saucepan with silver foil and put it inside the preheated oven. Let it cook for 15 minutes. This will dry out the remaining water.
  10. While the rice is getting cooked inside the oven, take a skillet and heat oil in it to medium-hot. Fry the paneer cubes in batches to light golden brown. Take out the paneer with a slotted spoon and place it on absorbent paper to absorb excess oil.
  11. When the rice is done, fold in the paneer cubes, coriander and mint leaves.
  12. Transfer the pulao on a rice platter, drizzle with lime juice, garnish with lime wedges and serve hot.

Spareribs in Apple Cider Vinegar + Mashed Potatoes

The flavour approach

Ingredients

For the spareribs

  • Pork spareribs- 1.5 kg
  • Sea Salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 1 tbsp
  • Dry white wine (e.g.- Pinot Gris)- 480 ml
  • Apple cider vinegar- 200 ml
  • Jaggery or dark brown sugar- 1/2 cup
  • Black peppercorns- 12 nos.
  • Ground fennel- 2 tsp
  • Ground cinnamon- 1/2 tsp
  • Ground turmeric- 1/2 tsp
  • Red chilli powder or cayenne pepper- 1/2 tsp

For the mashed potatoes

  • Potatoes- 550 g
  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 60 ml + 2 Tbsp
  • Warm water- 100 ml
  • Sea salt
  • Nigella seeds- 1 tsp
  • Garlic cloves thinly sliced- 2 nos.
  • Minced chives or scallion- 2 tbsp
The Flavour Approach
The acids in apple cider vinegar and white wine tenderises the meat during cooking. The acids also provide a contrast against the backdrop of warm aromatic spices and the sweetness of jaggery.
Passing the potatoes through a grater and then the fine-mesh sieve gives them a smooth, creamy texture. Garlic and chives enhance the flavour of mashed potatoes with the compounds allicin, isoallicin. 

For the spareribs

  1. To prepare the spareribs, cut them into individual ribs by slicing them between the bones. Pat dry with kitchen tissue and season with salt.
  2. Heat olive oil on a heavy-bottomed skillet and sear the ribs on both sides on medium heat until they turn brown. Remove from heat and place them in a Dutch oven or a saucepan with a lid.
  3. Blend wine, half the quantity of vinegar, the jaggery, peppercorns, fennel, cinnamon, turmeric and cayenne in a blender on high pulse until combined. Season with salt and pour it over the ribs.
  4. Cover and marinate the ribs with the marinade inside a refrigerator overnight.
  5. Preheat the oven to 150⁰C. Cover the top of the Dutch oven with a double layer of aluminium foil and seal properly. Cover with the lid and cook for 2 hours.
  6. Remove the lid and the foil and cook uncovered for another hour. The meat should be tender and falling off the bones.
  7. Remove the ribs from the Dutch oven and arrange them on a plate or tray.
  8. Skim and discard the excess fat from the liquid. Return the Dutch oven to the stove and heat the liquid over medium-high heat.
  9. Reduce the sauce to a syrupy consistency, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
  10. Return the ribs to the Dutch oven and fold to coat evenly with the sauce.
  11. Add the remaining vinegar, stir and adjust seasoning with salt, if required.
  12. Remove from heat and serve with the mashed potatoes garnished with chives.

For the mashed potatoes

  1. Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with enough water. Bring to boil on medium-high heat.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover and cook till the potatoes are completely tender but not mushy.
  3. Drain the potatoes and let them cool.
  4. Peel and discard the skins. Grate the potatoes with the fine holes of a grater. Then pass the potatoes through a fine-mesh sieve. Over a large mixing bowl.
  5. Whisk in the olive oil (60 ml) and the warm water until smooth and fluffy. Season with salt.
  6. Heat remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil on medium-high heat.
  7. When the oil is hot, add the nigella seeds and garlic till it becomes fragrant and the garlic turns light golden brown.
  8. Pour the tempered oil over the mashed potatoes and serve warm.

Sunny Pizza Toast (the flavour approach)

The flavour approach

Ingredients

  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 60 ml + 20 ml + 20 ml
  • Sandwich bread- 4 slices
  • Marinara sauce (store-bought)- 60 ml
  • Shredded sharp cheddar- 40 g
  • Red bell pepper roundels (deseeded)- 2 nos.
  • Green bell pepper roundels (deseeded)- 2 nos.
  • Tomato roundels- 4 nos.
  • Raw egg yolks- 4 nos.
  • Salt- to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper- to taste
  • Chopped flat parsley- 2 tbsp
  • Red chilli flakes- 1 tsp
The Flavour Approach
The major contributor to the umami flavour in this dish is the Marinara Sauce, followed by the cheese.
The vegetables provide the textural counterpoints to the toast and the sauce. 
The gooey egg yolks which explode with your bite enhance the savoury feel on your tastebuds. 
  1. Preheat oven to 180⁰C. Line a baking tray with butter paper and set the wire rack on top.
  2. Apply olive oil on each slice of the bread. Then apply Marinara Sauce and place the slices on the wire rack.
  3. Sprinkle half the quantity of cheese on the slices.
  4. Place one roundel each of bell peppers and tomatoes on each slice and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
  5. Separate the yolk from the white one egg at a time and place the yolk very gently on top of the tomato slice.
  6. Lightly spread the parsley on each bread slice.
  7. Season the slices with salt, black pepper and chilli flakes and drizzle with 20 ml of olive oil.
  8. Now, bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.
  9. Take out from the oven, drizzle with the remaining 20 ml of olive oil and garnish each slice with one sprig of parsley. Serve warm.

Honey + Turmeric Chicken Kebabs (the flavour approach)

The flavour approach

Ingredients

For the marinade

  • Fresh lime juice- 60 ml
  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 60 ml
  • Garlic cloves peeled and grated
  • Honey- 2 Tbsp
  • Ground black pepper- 2 tsp
  • Ground coriander- 2 tsp
  • Red chilli powder- 2 tsp
  • Turmeric powder- 2 tsp
  • Salt- to taste

For the kebabs

  • Boneless skinless chicken breast- 700 g
  • Ripe pineapple- 450 g
  • Red onion- 300 g
  • Green pepper (medium)- 1 no.
  • Red bell pepper (medium)- 1 no.
  • Yellow bell pepper (medium)- 1 no.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil- 60 ml
  • Ground black pepper- 1/2 tsp

For garnish

  • Cilantro leaves- 2 tbsp
  • Lime wedges- 4 nos.
The Flavour Approach
Honey and pineapple provide a sweet counterpart to the warmer flavours in this dish.
Keep pineapple and chicken separated until they are threaded onto the skewers. Raw pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain that breaks down the protein molecules into smaller peptides. If the chicken and pineapple are kept together in the marinade, the enzyme will break down the proteins in the chicken which will eventually affect the texture of the chicken once cooked. It will appear crumbly on the surface. But, once heated on the skewers the bromelain loses its capacity to break down the proteins.
  1. Prepare the marinade in a small bowl by combining the lime juice, olive oil, honey, black pepper, coriander, chilli powder, turmeric and salt.
  2. To prepare the kebabs, pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and then cut them into 1.5-inch cubes.
  3. Pour the marinade into a resealable bag, add the chicken cubes to it, seal the bag and then shake well to coat the chicken evenly with the marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  4. When ready to grill, remove the bag from the refrigerator and let the chicken come to room temperature.
  5. Cut the pineapple, onion, and bell peppers into 2-inch dices and place them in a large bowl.
  6. Add olive oil and black pepper, season with salt and toss to coat evenly.
  7. Thread a skewer with onion, bell peppers and pineapple, alternating with the marinated pieces of chicken. Brush some marinade over the kebabs.
  8. Heat a grill over medium heat and grease the grates with a little bit of oil.
  9. Cook the kebabs in batches, turning and basting with any remaining marinade and oil.
  10. When the kebabs get browned and charred in spots, transfer the kebabs with the skewers to a plate.
  11. Cover the plate with aluminium foil and let it rest for two minutes for all the flavours to come through.
  12. Discard the foil and garnish the kebabs with cilantro and serve hot with lime wedges on the side.

The above recipes are just a few examples of how the flavour approach works. The art of cooking lies in its science. For us, who have so much exposure to online information, the task is much simpler than that of our grandmas. Yet, our grandmas scored more. I do not buy the argument that they had so much time to spare. If you have the passion, you would manage your time.

The difference between good cooking and great cooking is not about recipes but lies in the hands of the chef. Or, in our case that of our grandmas.


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