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Our recipe for a family cookbook: We just wing it

My son Caleb Joseph envisions creating a family

My son Caleb Joseph envisions creating a family collection of recipes. Here's a picture of the cover of the cookbook he's already designed. (Credit: Newsday / Karen Stabile)

“Mummy, can you teach us how to make chicken curry?”

My heart should burst with joy at hearing these words but truth be told, I get a case of agita.

Growing up, I barely acquired any taste for the fine art of cooking. My mom’s labor of love kept our family well fed.

It was not until after I married and moved into my first apartment — and thanks to a cookbook — that I started my culinary adventures. My initial experiments set off my kitchen fire alarm many times. Two decades later, I am far from the experienced cook my mom is but I have learned enough to feed my own family of five.

Now my kids want to get in on the action and ask me to teach them to cook, especially Indian food, my style. Trouble is, like my mom, I mostly wing it. Even when I use recipes, I improvise. Cooking without a lesson plan is not always a recipe for success and makes teaching difficult. Sure, the kids can follow a recipe, as my 16-year-old did recently, making us an impressive dinner of vegetable pilaf and curried shrimp. But to make my-style sambar, a South Indian lentil-vegetable stew, for instance, that my kids love to eat with their idlis (rice-lentil cakes) can be tricky. “How many teaspoons of coriander powder, mum?” “Umm ... Just throw in a teaspoon or two” doesn’t quite cut the mustard. (Oh yes, you do need to pop mustard seeds to make sambar and most South Indian dishes.) Sprinkling in a little too much ground coriander can render the dish as flavorful as a cup of tea with salt.

My son Caleb has been hankering to make a collection of family recipes. Sadly, I don’t have a collection. Whether my sambar turns out spicy or mild or contains eggplants depends on the day and mood and what’s in my fridge and pantry. And I have but one recipe for chocolate and peanut butter cups, which my kids love and I was forced to write down for another blog post.

My young chefs sometimes feel that they are deprived of culinary wisdom only their mother can impart to them. But they can always cook up a storm using recipes from other fine cooks. And hopefully as time goes by, their personal zest and flair will flavor their dishes and maybe they'll create their own family cookbook. Meanwhile, they can curry some favor with me by making me some juicy salmon tikka.

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