Sunday, November 16, 2003

Read this before donning the apron for first time!
Gitanjali Sharma

The First-time Cookbook
by Janet and Sayeed Rizvi. HarperCollins. Pages 297. Rs 295. 

The First-time CookbookAre you a greenhorn when it comes to cooking? Does the very thought of fixing up a meal unnerve you? Do you wish you could call friends home for a meal under your own steam, without depending on home delivery or imploring your mother? Are you comfortable with rustling up a simple meal but unsure about preparing a more elaborate fare?

If you have shamefacedly or even unabashedly answered yes to any one of these posers, but are game for wielding a wok then you can allow this first-time cook book to be your navigator for swishing up some mouth-watering and hurdle-free meals.

The writers, Sayeed Rizvi, a former J&K Government official, and his wife Janet, a historian and freelancer, have dished out some 250 recipes, most of which are everyday vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare. But in order to not allow the already-reluctant cook’s interest wane with the plain dal-roti meals, there’s a sprinkling of exotica too. A videshi section brings about 20-odd recipes from Europe and West Asia like chicken fricassee, Irish stew, Spaghetti Bolognese, jellied chicken, Tunisian meat casserole with apricots, etc. All in all, there’s a varied fare to keep the taste buds tingling.

A novice cook is likely to be put at ease by the reassuring and encouraging tone adopted by the Rizvis, who themselves admit that they picked up the fine nuances of cooking only after Sayeed’s retirement a couple of years ago. While at no point sounding intimidating, they clarify at the outset that their recipes should be merely treated as guidelines to be followed till the readers acquire enough interest and confidence to branch out on their own. They astutely assert that a beginner would "probably want to follow the recipes closely`85 and sometimes your experiments will work, sometimes they won’t but it is not by following our suggestions slavishly that you’re going to learn cooking; it is by trial and error`85." And sure enough you see it for yourself that the recipes leave you enough room for experimentation, as below each recipe they offer variations by suggesting other materials and substitutes that can be used.

The First-Time Cookbook, as its name suggests, seriously adheres to the assumption that you are donning the apron for the first time. So don’t lose your patience as you get briefed at length about seemingly simple kitchen chores like picking the rice or setting the curd or rolling the chapatti and then "laying it flat" on a pre-heated tava.

Appropriately, in the beginning a few pages are devoted to the setting and stocking up of the kitchen and the fridge. Besides beginners, even old hands could gain from the suggestions given to make the best use of limited space and ways in which expenses could be curtailed even as the quality of the final product is not compromised.

Before coming to the final art of cooking, the writers acquaint you with ingredients and their preparation. The take-off stage is lengthy and minutely delves into essentials of planning and organising that precedes the actual cooking. So the greenhorn gets instructed about the kinds of oil used for different methods of cooking; the ways to wash, peel and cut vegetables; how to buy veggies, for instance tomatoes, which have a better flavour; and the selection of herbs and spices that are indispensable for Indian cooking. In between you get informative titbits: how to thicken the curd, how to loosen the gravy of meat curry, how to remove turmeric stains, how to protect dals from insects, etc.

Though the Rizvis have served a fairly palatable cuisine, there are some ingredients they have fallen short of. The different ‘ways with rice’ have been dealt with in sufficient detail but the section on rotis does not speak of much variety. Again, though the vegetarian portion offers recipes of most vegetables, it is smaller and appears bland before the rich non-veg fare, which offers a wide range of meat, chicken, fish and egg recipes. Visual appeal is another item that is in short supply. Reluctant first-timers could have certainly been tempted with more pictures than the dozen found in the book.