The Story

Cooking Boot Camp
Use All Your Burners

Lindsay Sterling

A friend once told me that he’d never seen anyone cook with all four burners at once. It never dawned on him that this was even possible. I suppose technical capability surpassing actual usage is like driving a sport utility vehicle on suburban roads to get sushi at Whole Foods. Or riding a mountain bike on sidewalks to get a pedicure. We live with untapped brute capabilities underlying our daily lives a lot. But should we? What if we all just started doing what we could do, instead of what we do do? As I imagine us tearing up every last square inch of wilderness in a frenzy of off-roading madness, I take that back. But what harm could there be in using all four burners at once?
Check the expiration date on your fire extinguisher, because I have the perfect four-burner meal for you to try. I just witnessed Hermeet Kohli, from Delhi, India, cooking her son’s favorite Indian meal for his birthday: north Indian kidney bean curry (rajma), rice with cumin (jira), spiced potatoes, yogurt sauce, and flatbread (roti). It’s all vegetarian. None of the dishes in themselves were hard to cook, and it really was a treat to sit before a plate full of distinct flavors.
She started by making her Punjabi version of curry paste by slowly cooking pureed onions, ginger, garlic, tomato paste, turmeric and Indian chili powder. The pureed ingredients had to cook for an hour and a half to become a paste, and she stood there stirring most of the time. Hermeet warned after about an hour, “Once you burn your onions, you’ll have to start all over again.” Since she’s a busy professor of social work at University of Southern Maine and a mom, she does have a slew of short cuts she uses to keep her family well fed.
“Sometimes I get frozen cut potatoes from Trader Joe's,” she says, “and when I cook, I cook a lot.” She makes ten times more curry paste than she’ll need and then freezes extra portions. With these she can easily whip up any variety of Punjabi curry after work – chicken, prawn, beans, or potatoes and peas. When she does eventually run out of homemade curry paste, and she doesn’t have time to make another batch, she’ll use a canned Indian curry paste from Shaw’s with pretty good results. In a real pinch, she’ll use a jar of tomato sauce and simply add Indian spices, onions and garlic.
While the curry paste was growing thicker on one burner, on another burner she sautéed whole cumin seeds with onion slices in oil and then added basmati rice. On another burner she was frying potato slivers with turmeric, cumin, coriander, Indian chili powder, dried mint and salt. And on another burner she was cooking kidney beans in water in a pressure cooker. When the curry paste was thick and holding together as a solid mass, she added a large spoonful of it to the beans along with garam masala, funugreek leaves, coriander leaves (aka cilantro) and salt. When the potatoes, rice, and beans were done, she rolled out discs of roti dough, which then puffed up like pufferfish as they were heating up on the skillet.
Was cooking with four burners possible? Yes. Should you do it, or just read this story and feel good that you could do it if you wanted to? Up to you. The curry was like a flavor-packed chili from a different land; the potatoes round and warm and interesting paired with that mint; the yogurt cool and balancing; the rice, neutral and bejeweled with peas; and the roti, a nice variation on homemade bread.

Click at right for recipes and how-to photos.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2014