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Archive for the ‘Indian’ Category

Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

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I’m very fond of Indian food, but I don’t cook it often. The recipes are usually quite complex, and the flavors seem to want to be matched with others of their kind. Thus, making a full Indian meal is a lengthy, fairly hectic procedure, with many steps to be taken at almost the same time.

In an attempt to break out of that rut, I decided, the other day, to put just one Indian dish on an otherwise-familiar American-style dinner plate: a vegetable to accompany a veal chop. Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India gave me a trove of recipes to choose from, including one that’s the simplest Indian dish I’ve ever seen: Aloo Gobi, or stir-fried cauliflower with potatoes. Granted, it calls for 10 ingredients, but there are really only a few cooking steps. It seemed ideal.

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For my half recipe, I first had to boil a potato. (Jaffrey says day-old leftovers do fine in the dish, but I didn’t have any.) When it had cooled, I cut it into ¾ inch dice. And I cut up half a small head of cauliflower to make a heaping two cups’ worth of florets. Then I stirred up a fragrant spice mixture: ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric; grated fresh ginger root. red chili powder, salt, and water. Those were all the ingredients.

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I heated my ancient, disreputable looking (but well-seasoned) wok on a stove burner, quickly sizzled some whole cumin seeds in oil, and added the cauliflower and potatoes.

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These were to be stir-fried for 10 minutes “or until the vegetables are well browned in spots.” Mine took almost twice that long to brown even minimally. I poured on the spice mixture, kept stir-frying for 1 minute, added some more water, and continued cooking gently. Per the recipe, the vegetables should have absorbed all their liquid and been tender in 2 to 5 minutes. Mine were not. Again, they took about twice that long, and the potato was mushy before the cauliflower was soft. Maybe it was supposed to be that way, since the potato had been fully cooked to begin with?

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Meanwhile I’d also been cooking the veal chops, using a technique that Tom Colicchio, in Think Like a Chef, calls pan-roasting. I browned them slowly in a little butter for 3 minutes on each side, cooked for 5 more minutes on each side; dropped in a big lump of butter and cooked for a final 10 minutes, turning and basting the chops with the butter. Very restaurantish, all that butter!

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The chops then had to sit off the heat at the back of the stove for 10 minutes, to draw their juices back in. That rest period made it easier to finish the vegetables and have them ready to serve when the chops were.

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Then came the taste test: inspired combination or culture clash? More like the latter, I’m sorry to say. The aloo gobi and the chop shared a plate amicably enough, and both were good of their kind, but on the palate they didn’t do anything for each other. The veal wasn’t enhanced by the spiciness of the vegetables, and the aloo gobi hardly seemed to recognize the flavor of the meat. Both would have been more pleasing with accompaniments in their own style. (Jaffrey suggests rice, a dal, and a raita alongside aloo gobi.) Beloved Spouse thinks the vegetables would have worked better with a moist braised meat – say, lamb or goat.

Well, it was a learning experience for me – to save Indian cooking for days when I have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, and perhaps when I have a few extra helping hands. However, there’s one potential benefit to the experiment: Since we didn’t finish all the aloo gobi, I’m saving the rest of it to try as a samosa filling.

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Two Vegetarian Indian Dishes

Readers who are familiar with my blog know that I don’t write only about my successes. If I try a recipe and it doesn’t work, I say so, and go on to consider jaffrey vegetarianwhy it didn’t: Was it my fault or the recipe’s? And what can I learn from the experience? Today’s post is about two such non-successes. Unfortunately, these are recipes from an author I respect and a book of hers with which I’ve previously had very good results: Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India.

It happened that I would be dining alone one recent evening, Beloved Spouse being out for a business dinner, so I could indulge my predilection for chicken. To liven things up a little, I thought I’d accompany my two broiled chicken thighs with a simple Indian vegetable dish and precede them with an Indian appetizer. Here’s how that worked.
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Everyday Carrots and Peas

This recipe looked like an attractive way to spice up humble vegetables. The cooking time seemed extremely brief for carrots, but I wanted to give the recipe a chance. So I defrosted half a cup of good tiny peas, cut a raw carrot into half-inch dice, and proceeded to measure out one-quarter of the indicated seasonings.

The instructions then were to heat olive oil (an approved alternative to ghee) in a frying pan. Sizzle some cumin seeds in the hot oil. Add the peas and carrots, and stir-fry them for 3 minutes. Stir in turmeric, red chile powder, freshly ground coriander, and salt. Lower the heat add a little water, cover the pan and cook “for 3-4 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.”

That last bit was the killer, as I feared it would be. After 4 minutes, the pan was dry, the peas were looking worried, and the carrots were still rock-hard. I kept adding small amounts of water, but it took almost 10 more minutes before the carrots were pierceable with a fork. And by then the peas were pretty mushy.
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The dish wasn’t a disaster: The peas and carrots were edible, and tasty enough in themselves. But neither vegetable had a proper texture – one still too firm, the other too soft – and the spices were barely discernible. Maybe they’d have been more prominent in a shorter cooking time, but then I would have had raw carrots. Maybe I should have used a very young, tender carrot, instead of the mature one that I had, but the recipe didn’t specify age – and even so, carrots don’t cook fast.

If I ever try this recipe again – and I might, because I do like the concept – I’ll probably parboil the carrots and double the spices.
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Simple Hard-boiled Egg Curry

This experiment was a total failure. Simple the recipe definitely is, and the book’s photo is quite intriguing:

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The only spices involved in the preparation are turmeric, red chile powder, salt, and black pepper – not what I’d thought of as enough to consider a curry. But Jaffrey says the dish is “beloved in the Telangana region of Andrha Pradish,” so who was I to cavil?

Once hard-boiled and peeled, the eggs are to have deep longitudinal slits cut in them – presumably to let the spices sink in. Ghee or butter is heated in a small frying pan; the spices are stirred in; then the eggs, which are to be rolled around “for about a minute, or until they are golden.” Serve right away.

Well, here are my eggs after two minutes:

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Not as who should say golden, eh? And here they are after 10 minutes of dutiful rolling around:

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Pitiful. At that point I thought I’d better take them off the heat before they turned to leather. When I cut them open, none of the color had seeped in through the slits, nor had any of the spice flavors. Just plain HB eggs, with a toughened outer skin. I ate them for my appetizer anyway, but they weren’t worth even the minor effort they took.

I wonder if the color of the eggs in the book’s picture was due to Photoshop. Either that, or there had to be some drastic errors in copyediting or proofreading the recipe. Those could also apply to the timing given for the peas and carrots, as well as the spice quantities indicated in both recipes. Improbable, but what else could it be? There was the possibility that my spices were too old and had lost their power. But that wasn’t it: When checked afterward, they were fully as aromatic as they ought to be.

Leaving aside why these recipes didn’t work, the lesson I need to learn from this experience is to put more faith my own culinary instincts. (Soft cheers in the background from Tom, who has been telling me this forever.) I knew carrots need longer cooking; I’d been surprised by the tiny quantities of spices called for; and I couldn’t see how flavors could permeate eggs in one minute. I should summon the courage to make my own changes in cases like this. As in every other field, just because something is in print doesn’t mean it’s right.

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Long ago, when I first started doing Indian cooking, I couldn’t see the attraction of basmati rice. My only Indian cookbook insisted the so-fragile rice had to be washed in nine separate waters, soaked for exactly thirty minutes, and cooked only in one of three minutely specified ways. It seemed like far too much trouble to go to for rice – which, at the time, was only a minor dish in my culinary repertoire. What can I say? I was young and ignorant – and wrong.

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jaffrey vegetarianMany years and five more Indian cookbooks later, I’ve learned to appreciate the long, slender, pointy grains of basmati. Gone are the nine washes: A few rinses are all that’s called for now. Maybe the US is importing a cleaner, better grade of rice? Basmati still requires more care than ordinary long-grain rice, but its flavor and texture more than reward the effort. I used it in an excellent dish this week from my newest Indian cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India.

I chose the recipe, Rice with Dill and Peas, partially to showcase the fresh English or shelling peas that I’ve been enjoying from my Greenmarket for the past few weeks. In a large pot, I browned thinly sliced onions in olive oil and gently stirred in the soaked and drained rice, garam masala, chopped fresh dill, salt, and water. I brought it all to a boil, covered the pot tightly, and put it in the oven for 25 minutes. I took it out, quickly tossed in a handful of blanched fresh peas, returned the tight cover, and baked for 5 more minutes. Out of the oven, the pot sat undisturbed for 10 minutes, after which I fluffed up the rice and served it.

rice peas dill

It was lovely. Perfectly done, with neither dryness nor excess liquid. You couldn’t taste the dill as such, but it, the onions, and the garam masala subtly blended into the flavor of the nutty, aromatic rice. The peas made an attractive color and textural contrast and added just the smallest touch of vegetable sweetness.

Following Jaffrey’s suggestion, I’d made a Carrot Raita to serve alongside the rice. This was a departure for me, nothing like the raita I usually make, which is soft curds of yogurt, grated cucumber, ground roasted cumin seeds, and chopped fresh mint. This one was a dense relish, made with a thick Greek-style yogurt, a lot of coarsely grated carrots, chopped green chili, chopped cilantro, sugar, and salt, with a final lacing of whole mustard seeds and coriander seeds sizzled in olive oil.

carrot raita

The raita was quite sweet from the carrots – actually a bit sweeter than we’d have liked – but it had an intriguing flavor, and it partnered excellently with the rice and peas. Because it was so thick, I thought maybe I’d chosen the wrong kind of yogurt (though it was made by Kalustyan, which ought to know!), but later research told me that Indian yogurt is indeed like that, so I guess I did it right. Next time I’ll just skip the sugar.

To round out the evening’s dinner, I added a small meat dish: a goat curry that I like to make, based on an easy lamb recipe from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking.

goat curry

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I can’t imagine my pantry without dried beans. They’re an all-around useful, nourishing, delicious culinary staple. I always have several kinds on hand, and this week I added a new, extraordinarily good variety to my collection – of which, broadening the definition just a little to include pulses, I already had six kinds on my pantry shelf:

L to R: Santa Maria pinquitos, chickpeas, Midnight blacks, Castelluccio lentils, yellow Indian lentils, Domingo rojo reds

L to R: Santa Maria pinquitos, Umbrian chickpeas, Midnight blacks, Castelluccio lentils, yellow Indian lentils, Domingo rojo reds

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ChiliSanta Maria pinquitos are my all-time favorite bean for chili. I’ve written enthusiastically about them before, here and here. They’re small but they can hold their own among any strong or spicy flavors.

 

 

servedI love the flavor of chickpeas, and I use them in many guises, some of which I’ve written about here and here. These are an artisanal variety from Umbria.

 

 

black bean soup 2Midnight is a robust black turtle bean, which I usually use in Mexican dishes, such as here and here. They make especially good soups.

 

 

pasta with lentilsCastelluccio lentils are the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. A favorite way to serve them is in my own pasta with lentils recipe, and I’ve also written about them here and here.

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Yellow Indian lentils are actually skinned and split mung beans. I keep them for making moong dal, a mild, pleasant side dish in Indian meals.

Domingo rojo is a dark red bean that I bought last fall from Rancho Gordo. It’s supposed to be especially good for red beans and rice. I’ll be trying it one day soon.

CassouletNormally I also have white beans in the pantry: Great northerns or marrows, for cassoulets and plain American baked beans, but I’ve already used up this winter’s supply of those. And once I brought back from France some Coco de Paimpol, which is probably the world’s best cassoulet bean.

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SolfinosAnd now I have a new treasure to add to my collection: Solfino beans, an ancient variety from Italy’s Marches region. These are a very rare, pale yellow heirloom bean. I’d tasted them years ago when they were briefly being grown in Tuscany under the name Zolfino, but apparently they didn’t do well there and almost went extinct.

There’s now one artisanal grower of them in the Marches, back where they originated, and when I found some in a local specialty shop, I snatched up a bag. The back label gives a whole history of the variety: fragile, difficult to grow, picky about soil and water, low-yielding, requiring mostly hand tending.

All that makes them ghastly expensive (I paid $17.95 for 500 grams), but they are extraordinarily good. I prepared my precious Solfinos very simply, in order to really taste the bean itself: gently boiled with just a little garlic, fresh sage, and olive oil.

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I served them dressed with nothing but extra-virgin olive oil and salt. That was all they needed to bring out their subtle, rich, warm, and yet delicate flavor – hard to describe but heavenly to taste.

solfino 3

 

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An early Christmas gift from my friends Bruce and Joan was Madhur Jaffrey’s jaffrey vegVegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking. It’s a big handsome book, with gorgeous color photographs. I was immediately drawn to many of the recipes and couldn’t resist trying a few right away. I settled upon two of the simpler ones: a mushroom curry and a dish of peas and potatoes, to be served as a weeknight dinner for two, along with a pair of very un-Indian, un-vegetarian Cajun andouille sausages.

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A quick trip to the great Indian grocery store Kalustyan provided what was lacking in my pantry supplies: not very much, I was pleased to realize. All I absolutely needed for these recipes were the mushrooms and a piece of fresh ginger – though once in the store I picked up several things for use in future recipes. And so home to cook half recipes for two.

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For Peas and Potatoes Cooked in a Bihari Style, I started in the afternoon by boiling, cooling, peeling, and dicing three fingerling potatoes; also defrosting a generous cup of small green peas. Toward dinner time I prepared and measured out all the other ingredients, because from that point the cooking had to proceed quickly.

A little oil in a nonstick frying pan got me started. In it I sizzled whole cumin seeds for a few seconds, then stir-fried half a chopped onion until it was soft. Finely grated fresh ginger, a finely chopped hot green chili (a serrano, but who’s checking?), and ⅛ teaspoon of turmeric went in next, for just one minute.

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Finally, I added the peas, potatoes, salt, and pepper, stirring for just another minute. Then I could turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it sit at the back of the stove until we were ready to dine. It reheated perfectly well and, gratifyingly, looked very much like the photo in the book. (That doesn’t always happen with gorgeously photographed cookbooks.)

peas & potatoes 2

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Jaffrey’s Simple Kodava Mushroom Curry was indeed comparatively simple to make, as Indian curries go. I started by rubbing salt, turmeric, and chili powder (Mexican, but again, nobody’s checking) into half a pound of white mushrooms – wearing a plastic glove as the author suggests, to keep turmeric stains off my fingers.

shrooms

While the mushrooms sat for a while to absorb the spices, I set up the other ingredients: whole brown mustard seeds, a chopped hot green chili, ¼-inch half rings of onion, and freshly ground coriander seeds. Each of those flavorings went in succession into a little oil in a hot frying pan. Next into the pan came the mushrooms, which I stir-fried for a few minutes, mixed in a little water, covered, and simmered for 10 minutes. That was all: The curry was ready.

mushroom curry 2

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Both the vegetable dishes were highly successful, and both went well with grilled sausages. The peas and potatoes were fairly mild tasting, delicately imbued with their mixture of spices. The mushrooms were more robust, with a lively touch of fire from their different set of spices. Both were nice textural counterpoints to the grilled andouille. Our palates were soon tingling with the flavors of this unusual pre-Christmas dinner. Not our traditional run-up to the holiday, but thoroughly enjoyable.

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I love the names of dishes from India. Unlike the prosaic English versions of the two in my title – Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce and Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs – the exotic Hindi names are so mysterious and appealing! (At least I think that’s Hindi, though it might be Kashmiri or Punjabi or another of the 22 official languages of India.) And I love the flavors of India, whatever their names. Rogan Josh is a particular favorite. Whenever Tom and I go to an Indian restaurant, one of us is bound to order it. But I’d never made it at home, so that was one of the dishes I chose for my latest foray into Indian cooking. For the second I picked an eggplant recipe, to partner with the lamb.

 

Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs

Sahni vegetarianThis recipe is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. She calls it an elegant and beautifully seasoned preparation, but mine didn’t turn out exactly so on either count – though it looked very good on the page and smelled lovely all through its cooking.

I cut a rotund one-pound eggplant in half and carefully scooped out the flesh, leaving thick enough walls (as I thought) to hold the stuffing. The stuffing was a sauté of chopped onion, ginger, the eggplant pulp, tomatoes, green Bell pepper, cayenne pepper, ground coriander, lemon juice, salt, and pot cheese – the last an acceptable substitute for the Indian cheese called chenna. I filled the eggplant shells with the mixture, set them in a baking dish, and drizzled on olive oil.

They were to be covered with foil and baked for 30 minutes; then uncovered and baked 15 minutes more. I wanted a pan deep enough to keep the cover from touching the filling, and my best pan for that was fairly large. And because of the curvature of the shells, the two stuffed halves didn’t sit perfectly level. So when they came out of the oven, the shells had slid around in their oozing juices, partially collapsed, and spilled some of their filling.  I thought I’d left enough flesh on the skins to make the shells hold up, but I guess I hadn’t.

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In that picture the eggplants are not in the pan they were cooked in. Because of their unfortunate deconstruction, I transferred them to a shallow dish for serving, refilling and reshaping the shells as best I could. And I topped them with chopped cilantro, as recommended.

So how did they taste? Well, all right, but not a big winner. The eggplant pulp hadn’t taken on much of the other flavors, and to me it was still somewhat bitter. Dabs of papaya-orange chutney and mango-chili pickle helped it a lot. Tom liked it more than I did: He thought the bitterness minor and relished the mélange of other flavors.  I noticed, however, that he availed himself of the Indian pickle and chutney pretty freely.

With all the other good things there are to do with eggplant, I’m not likely to make this particular dish again, though I might try a different Indian eggplant recipe before local eggplant season ends.

 

Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce

Sahni classicThe recipe I used for Rogan Josh is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. This is my favorite Indian cookbook, and I often do lamb dishes from it, but almost always using its recipe for Ghosht Kari, which is a spicy tomato-based stew. Rogan Josh is something else entirely.

First, boned lamb leg meat is cubed and marinated for a few hours in an aromatic puree made from onions, ginger, coriander, cayenne, yogurt, sour cream, and ghee (or melted butter). Then it’s cooked slowly, still in its marinade, until the lamb is perfectly tender –­ about two hours. The cooking aromas were enticing.

After that, in a small pan, you quickly fry chopped garlic, ground cumin, ground cardamom, and garam masala in more ghee, producing more appetizing smells, and stir the mixture into the lamb’s pot, along with a healthy dose of heavy cream. Then the whole concoction has to sit at room temperature for at least two hours.

I did all this a day in advance, because Sahni says it improves with keeping. The next evening I simply heated it up and served it.

 

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Even though it looked unfortunately a bit like dogfood, the Rogan Josh was really delicious, rich and mellow, without the palate-searing chili heat of many Indian dishes. Those cooking aromas hadn’t lied. Like the eggplant, it had no objection to judicious applications of cilantro, chutney, and pickle. The lamb was beautifully tender and well-seasoned, and the sauce was excellent over plain white rice – and also fine to mop up with warm parathas.

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Unlike the eggplant, the lamb is a dish I will definitely make again.

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