It was about the time the plastic bag I was filling with Roma tomatoes ballooned to 4 pounds or so that I began to sense that the culinary stunt I had invited my friends and family to was more loved ones to witness had veered towards disaster.
The main dish that everyone would come to in a couple of hours was supposed to be almost entirely minced meat flavored with Indian spices. I didn’t remember tomatoes at all. Here I was, though, counting even more tomatoes in a bag of produce than it already outnumbered the packs of meat in my cart.
It was evident that something was wrong. The full picture of what it was and how it could be fixed was fuzzy, so I went back to get all the tomatoes that were on my shopping list.
I was trying to make keema, a deeply nostalgic dish for me and my guests, but the knowledge that I hadn’t tasted it for 20 years was beginning to seem like a problem. As was the fact that keema had been a staple in the phenomenal cooking repertoire that my friends’ late mother, Shiro, had learned growing up in India — and these were the friends whose families I had invited to this dinner.
None of this seemed like a problem when I set the plan in motion a few nights earlier.
Wait, “soft” is not what you call this sort of thing. What am I thinking about? Yes, “gross negligence”.
So none of this seemed like a problem when I set gross negligence in motion a few nights earlier. In fact, it felt like the perfect tribute to the way Shiro made my family a part of his life whenever he cooked for us.
The idea to recreate one of his dinners came from a conversation while Shiro’s children cleaned several take-out aguachile containers with my brother and I at my parents’ house.
Lately I make sure to get an order or two of wildly spicy aguachile — raw shrimp marinated in lime juice and hot peppers — whenever I visit my parents in California. No one had heard of it when I was growing up, but aguachile food trucks are everywhere now.
It’s almost ceviche, the citrus-marinated fish that’s as common in Midwestern Tex-Mex joints as it is on Mexican beaches. But perhaps south of the border, where food can be spicy, some lucky fool might have added an unreasonable number of chiles to a batch of ceviche and accidentally create a mouthwatering new food.
The amount of chiles still hovers close to unreasonable in the best aguachile trucks, and this causes a powerful burn to be extinguished. In fact, I blame the beer we downed during our conversation about those particular containers of aguachile for making me think I could tackle an unfamiliar and sentimental dish from a complex cuisine I don’t know much about.
Clueless bravado is bad fuel for most projects. It certainly didn’t bring me closer to anyone’s recollection of Shiro’s keema, which I later learned contained tomatoes, but only a handful. My friends laughed at me, but whatever I made that night was good enough to make us eat most of the 8 or so pounds that were on the plate.
I would cook it again. And since I still don’t have a clear idea of what I’m aiming for, there’s a chance I’ll end up making the kind of genius mistake I suspect is behind the world’s first batch of aguachile.
Meanwhile, I challenged my friends to continue the grossly negligent hospitality of that Indian dinner by cooking my family something from our culture.
My grandmother Maria made a deadly chicken mole. That needs a chocolate sauce, nuts and chiles and then different chiles and some fruit and at least eight or 12 other ingredients, depending on who Grandma taught you about – all kinds of possibilities for a genius mistake. or at least a laugh.