Cooking for Anoushka

#1000Kitchens is a series that takes you into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this instalment, we visit Gautam John as he cooks a meal for his three-year-old daughter Anoushka.

We often walk past the tumble of front gates near Ganja Park and wonder who lives inside. The roads are leafy and tree-lined, and the hum of traffic drops away as you go further in. Just a stone's throw from the city's bustling restaurant and retail neighbourhood is Rest House Crescent. Here, posh flats with double-height ceilings rub shoulders with old bungalows where guitar lessons are held on rooftops, and the aroma of mutton curry wafts out on Saturday morning. It is equal parts incongruous and comforting. 

It is here that Gautam John lives with his family, in an apartment with a backyard and two boisterous dogs that fall over in their enthusiasm to greet you. Gautam is the person we call when we want a bit of local wisdom – what to eat and where – no matter where in the world we are travelling. Odds are, he's been there already, and has the scene neatly mapped out. His culinary compass and his family's epicurean inclinations have become something of urban legend in the city: Rumour has it his father dines on tableware embossed with his own initials, at a well-known restaurant in the city; we also have it on good authority that his three-year old daughter Anoushka, likes her steak done medium-rare. It is her lunch that brings us to his kitchen today.

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We know Gautam as a very hands-on dad, from an early Goya piece on stay-at-home fathers. (He later told us that he was identified at a birthday party as ‘that sous vide father,’ confirming all his fears on the perceived snobbery around his choice of kitchen equipment.) He still cooks at least one meal a day for Anoushka.

As he leads us into the kitchen where he has already started on lunch, we are surprised at how peaceful cooking steak sous vide actually is. A fillet sits neatly sealed in a bag, in a bath of hot water, and Gautam sets the temperature to 56.5 degrees C. He explains the process at an even pace, as though it were rules to board-game. "The best thing about it is how easy it is. In the evenings when we go to the park with Anoushka, we just pop it in and leave. Even if we're half an hour late, it won't matter. Unlike on the gas where the temperature keeps rising, it’s very hard to burn or overcook with the sous vide."

The Anova Sous Vide machine he uses works like a high-end immersion rod with temperature control settings. If 56.5 degrees C is the ideal temperature to cook a steak medium rare, the Anova will hold the bath at this temperature, allowing the fillet to cook medium-rare from edge to edge. "On a pan though, when the centre touches medium-rare, the outer edges are much hotter, often cooking up to medium.”

Gautam offers us coffee, and between sips we examine the rest of his kitchen. In a black and white photograph on the fridge, Gautam and his wife Shobitha beam at the camera, Anoushka on his lap, the joy palpable. Next to it, a fridge-magnet says Keep Calm and Daddy On. We admire his perfectly seasoned Lodge pan and mention we're having trouble with ours. He immediately offers to help. "Send it over; it's my favourite thing in the world to do,” he says with a smile. “First you need to strip it with rock salt, then go at it with steel wool, some soap and hot water. It takes a long time, but I love it. It’s the closest I'll ever come to doing something with my hands."

Gautam's love of good things – cheese, sourdough, good steak, perfectly seasoned fish, has guided the formation of his daughter's palate. For Gautam and Shobitha, the early years with Anoushka were an opportunity to set a strong base. When school begins, her food journey is bound to face the peer pressure and shop-window temptations of her generation, like the layered neon cakes and sugary cream puffs in Iyengar bakery windows that defined ours. The two guiding principles for Anoushka’s diet are a) no added sugars of any kind, and b) high quality protein as often as possible. Gautam and Shobitha encourage her to try different cuisines and flavours, and she’s developed a keen sense of what she enjoys: a marked preference for Asian flavours – she loves soy, broth, garlic and ginger. “She's a purist; she loves clean flavours. They brought in a pomelo the other day, and she just couldn’t get enough, even though I thought it was a bit sour.”

Breakfast is usually eggs, and lunch is invariably a Kerala fish fry and kachimoru “She loves kachimoru because her grandmother's cook makes it for her. And that's reason enough to love something.” She snacks on banana or peanut butter, before a protein-rich dinner of chicken, lamb or steak.

An hour has flown by, and Gautam removes the meat from the bath and lays it out on a paper napkin to pat dry. "Now we salt, and literally just finish on the pan. You don't even need to let it sit." He pours a generous splotch of ghee into the pan – "Not butter, it burns too quickly" – and slides in the fillet. It sizzles satisfactorily. A long tongue of flame reaches sneakily up into the pan and Gautam lifts it off the heat. He slips in a wedge of butter and a bit of pepper, to make sauce. Within a minute or two he's sliding the fillet back out again, onto a cutting board. It slices effortlessly to reveal a perfectly pink interior, before he tips a bit of sauce over it.

"The other thing I really love," he holds out a bottle of Fleur de sel, “is using nice salt – it makes such a difference. It’s a bit expensive, but you never use it to cook anyway; only to finish. And these big crystals work really well.” A scattering of salt flakes on the steak, and we take our plates out into the sunny backyard. Anoushka should be home any minute now.

Recipe: Gautam John’s Sous Vide Steak

Ingredients
1 fillet steak, about an inch thick
2 tbsp ghee
Salt, to taste
Pepper, freshly ground, to taste
Fleur de sel, as needed
Butter, as needed

Method
Place the fillet of steak in a high quality zip-lock or sous-vide bag. (You can add olive oil, garlic, bay leaf or other herbs, as needed).
Clip the bag to the edge of a pot of pre-heated water. Set the temperature for 56.5 degrees C for a steak done medium rare. A one-inch-thick steak will be ready in an hour, but it can remain in the water for another hour without overcooking.
Once done, remove the fillet from the bath, and lay on a paper towel. Gently pat dry.
Preheat ghee in skillet. Add in the fillet and allow it to sit about a minute or two on each side to get a tasty brown crust. You can also toss in fresh herbs for added flavour.
If you’ve added olive oil and herbs in the bag, use it to make a quick pan sauce. Optionally, a little butter and pepper work well too.

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Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen and photos by Aysha Tanya; Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.

 

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