Come Dine With Me has shown that many of us have an insatiable appetite for vicarious competitive dining, especially if there's good bitching thrown in. But it's also proved that not everyone who fancies themselves as a dinner party host possesses the ability to deliver that core component; some edible, tasty and perhaps exciting dishes. While some people have a butler to help (Barrymore - yes, we think you cheated a bit) others lacking skills, knowledge, confidence and/or a personal chef can call on Book a Cook.
You could hire Nikki Mohan to cater your dinner party for you, but we asked her to help us cook Indian from scratch. Having spent time living in India when younger and now with an Indian husband, she knows what she's talking about. We booked in for a half day lesson at her Clapham home, the aim being to eat everything we made.The menuSpiced nuts
Bothi Gosht (a dry lamb curry)
Thoran (spicy green beans)
Poppadoms (with raita, carrot salad & tomato and onion chutney)
Waiting for us in the kitchen was a smart green folder with the planned menu and all recipes, plus a few extra variations, should you feel adventurous another time. We're introduced to the ingredients and urged to sniff the spices - as task that made us realise all the packets that had been in our cupboard at home for several years really were a bit tired now. Fresh hot chilli powder smells like hot tomato paste in the back of your throat and - news to us - turmeric or haldi actually does possess a smell and isn't just yellow stuff you stick in things. We learn that Indian food generally requires fresh green chillis and dried red ones and that if you're following a proper Indian recipe, you might want to go light on the amount of chilli powder employed as the stuff is often cut in India - like cocaine, to go further - so be wary and moderate to taste.
Chit chat over, chopping commences and we get going on the garlic and ginger for the Bothi Gosht, a dead simple dry lamb curry that preps on the stove then bakes in the oven for an hour. Then beetroot bleeds everywhere as we peel and chop for the spiced beetroot dish (Nikki has an awesome range of knives plus a bludgeon of a sharpening stick). Aubergines are set to bake in the oven while yet more ginger, garlic and chillies are decimated in the name of curry. Chatting whilst cooking we forget a crucial ingredient and calmly correct our error: another lesson learned (don't panic!)
Poppadom frying turns out to be great fun. Buy the dough from your corner shop, quarter, then deep fry in a small pan, watching them bloom into delicious crispy delights. Who knew you could keep them in Tupperware for weeks? Wondrous.
There's discussion over rice cooking methods. Our pour it into boiling water, wait 15 mins with crossed fingers approach may now be ousted having sampled Nikki's perfect and beautiful turmeric rice. Thoran is definitely going on our regular list as green veg can be sadly lacking in our curry experience and deserves a starring role. Green beans with spices and dessicated coconut is a winner.
At the end of 3 or so hours, we've cooked a veritable feast hardly breaking a sweat. Handily, the spiced nuts and divine mango fool had been prepared earlier. Laying the table to eat showed that we'd concocted a visually stunning dinner that deserved admiration in itself (spiced beetroot like a bloodbath) and the eating of it was the more satisfying having brought it into being from scratch.
Cooking with Nikki is interesting, fun and laid back. It's straightforward divvying up tasks, more often than not sharing chopping duties and alternating stove top sniffs of cooking dishes. No question is too simple or silly to ask and she'll urge you to taste everything as it goes and really immerse yourself in the process. If you want some help with your culinary skill - whether you've never picked up a saucepan or are fairly experienced but with a hole in your repertoire - Nikki's informal, health conscious and seasonal take on cooking could be just the thing. Even better, a class like this would make an excellent birthday present (hint, hint).