15 people for dinner tonight? No problem
If I were to be told this morning that 15 people are arriving for dinner tonight, it wouldn’t faze me or my wife (I’m sure she can’t claim otherwise and sound uncool).
It doesn’t matter if it’s a working day. I just had a dinner for 15 last week actually, on a Tuesday, a day after returning from a week in Bombay and restarting the kitchen. It was quite a breeze-as it usually is.
Here’s the secret we’ve evolved over the years: the jhatka or quick, improvised dinner (Readers of this blog may recall my unique kitchen qualification: I am a jhatka cook).
It’s snappy. It’s fun. Guests will love it. You have my guarantee.
Most importantly, it doesn’t take much effort-if you organise your thoughts before you start cooking.
Our dinners are our own efforts. There is no help at home when guests arrive, and I have given up my pre-marriage habit of making people wash their own plates (you can’t blame me; up to 25 people were often fed at my bachelor pad in one go).
We’re happy to share with you our secrets for the jhatka dinner. Your guests will marvel, believing this is the result of much effort and many hours of slaving, while you chortle with satisfaction at the ease of it all. It’s no surprise that our house has always been a meeting point for our friends, who know how quickly we put together the jhatka dinner.
Step 1: Fix the menu. This is most important to your peace of mind and ability to pull off the jhatka dinner. Keep it simple. Focus on a few dishes because (a) Quality always scores over quantity, and (b) this will allow you to not only have a great meal but to enjoy the party. So, make sure the main cooking is done either in the morning or before the guests arrive. Leave only what must be made fresh for the end. As you will see, to us, that is only one 5-minute entrée.
Step 2: Decide the ingredients and do all the chopping, peeling and washing. This takes the most time-if you have help at home, get this done. If not, you’ll have to put in the effort. My wife and I divide these chores, and this makes it really quite easy. We’re done in less than an hour.
Step 3: Get everything else ready. Ice? (the ice-cube holder in my freezer is always full, as are five ice trays) Check. Cold drinks? We always keep a big bottle each of Coke and Limca and a pack of orange juice. Wine? Check. Other booze? Check.
Step 4: Snacks. Now, I know many people love snacks, but we aren’t great believers. A few chips or pistas is all we put out-sometimes kakori and chicken kababs ordered from a nearby tyre shop (which by night turns into a kebab supplier). We would rather our guests enjoy dinner, and I’ve found that dinner is consumed in inverse proportion to the snacks served.
Step 5: Don’t delay dinner. This is key to your ability to prepare a true jhatka dinner. It would defeat the purpose if you were utterly pooped, right? We serve dinner reasonably early (by 10 pm, early by Delhi standards), and the party has never suffered. For some reason, most people believe what is now an urban legend: Guests are ready to leave after eating. And so they delay dinner to a point too late to appreciate or truly enjoy the food. The fact is that most people I know actually want a reasonably early dinner, and they increasingly say so. At our last week’s dinner, people polished off the dinner, which put them in a very mellow and agreeable mood, then got back to some serious drinking. I had to finally close down the party at half past midnight on a working Tuesday.
And now, the menu for a typical jhatka dinner:
1. Salad: Always made with fresh lettuce. Iceberg and rocket leaves are a good combination. Remember to wash thoroughly; we don’t want worms in the brain, do we? It’s washed and either put out to dry while we get ready for work or spun dry in a salad spinner. This is the wife’s domain. In the evening, she grates parmesan cheese over the leaves, adds olives (sometimes), a few onion rings that have been soaked in vinegar, and cherry tomatoes (washed and kept ready in the morning). The dressing is standard: a little olive oil (2 tbsps perhaps), an equal quantity of good vinegar (red, white or balsamic), freshly crushed pepper, a dash of mustard, 2 crushed garlic pieces. We usually shake it up in a small glass bottle and pour and toss just as dinner is announced. Last week, she added roasted pine nuts.
2. Fish curry or roast chicken (depending on who’s coming, what’s available and if you’re serving kababs for snacks): If it’s fish curry, it’s almost always my 10-minute Goan fish curry. You can read that recipe here. I half-cook it in the morning, so that it cooks fully when I simply heat it on the gas in the evening. Or I make it fresh, since it’s so quick. It it’s roast chicken, that calls for a little more effort and monitoring while the party is on. I do the marinating in the morning: Wash and clean a full chicken, with the skin. Pierce the skin, stud it with cloves. Rub it with any kind of robust spices (I roast and pound my own in the morning-usually a combo of whole dried chillies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, big, black cardamom, bay leaf and really anything else I can lay my hands on), salt and some Old Monk rum. I put the chicken into a prewarmed oven about an hour before the first guest arrives, and let it roast for over two hours, frequently turning and basting it in its own juices. On some evenings, when I’ve tended to overdo the rum and coke in my own glass, I may have missed some basting and turning, but we usually end up with a nicely browned bird with the meat coming off the bone.
3. Shikampuri kababs: Our part-time cook who comes in for an hour on some mornings usually makes these, or we get them from outside. All we need to do is microwave them before serving. With simpler meals, we get by without these too, keeping it to one non-veg.
4. One plain, earthy, tasty veggie dish: Usually rajma made the previous day or that morning by the cook. If I have the time, I tend to make an Avadhi makkai khumb (mushrooms with corn), the recipe purloined from Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters, an excellent book written in 1986 by the redoubtable Jiggs Kalra with recipes sourced from some of India’s finest old-fashioned moustachioed male chefs.
5. The stir-fry: Simple, quick and flavourful, this is always a hit. With everything cleaned and chopped, I toss it up exactly 5 minutes before dinner is served. I will do a detailed post on the wonders of the stir fry next week, but very quickly, all you need is some fresh garlic (or even preprepared giner-garlic paste), broccoli or zucchini or both, one yellow and one red bell pepper (you can even avoid these), mushrooms and spring onions (if you want). I heat a minimal quantity of olive oil in my trusty old wok, sputter some sesame or black-onion (kalonji) seeds or both with dried red chillies snapped into half, then throw in the garlic or ginger-garlic paste, then the broccoli (and mushrooms if you’re using them), then the zucchini. I usually stir fry on high heat, adding dashes of red-wine vinegar (or the wine that I am drinking) and soya sauce to keep it moist and sizzling. Add salt. Sometimes I add a little chilli/jeera/dhania powder or a dash of whatever spicy sauce is at hand (used South African peri peri last week). Add the peppers for the final minute, keep tossing, and round off with any dried or fresh herbs (oregano, rosemary are my preferences).
6. A flavoured rice: I sauté sliced onions (two for two big cups of rice), add ginger-garlic, add two sliced tomatoes, mix in normal Indian spices (chilli/turmeric/coriander/cumin powder), add pinenuts, salt and washed rice. Mix it well, then remove the whole lot to the rice cooker and keep it ready too cook. You can do all this before guests arrive or in the morning. I add water, and 45 minutes before dinner, I only need to switch on the cooker.
7. A raita (if you want): All I do is grate 2-3 cucumbers, squeeze out the water, add yoghurt after whisking (the plain market variety from plastic containers) and draw three lines across-in turmeric powder, chilli powder and jeera powder.
8. Freshly baked bread from a bakery. Or if there is someone to make and keep them ready, plain parathas. But you need to heat them up on a stove while simultaneously heating the curry, watching the chicken or doing the stir fry and heating the rajma or kababs in the microwave. We often avoid parathas. Our experience is that few parathas get eaten, everyone choosing the flavoured rice instead, with fish curry or rajma.
That’s about it, really.
So, you see, we actually only make only one dish from scratch while the guests are around-the stir-fry, which takes 5 minutes. Sometimes the fish, which takes 10. And invariably, I find some guests winding up in the kitchen to give me company. So, you’re never away from the party.
Try the jhatka dinner. It works.