Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Long Love Affair With Indian Food

I want to go on record RIGHT NOW as saying Indian food, in all of its iterations, in all of its regional variations, in all of its incarnations, is my absolute, drop-dead, stop-everything, hold-the-presses favorite cuisine.

Well…..OK.  Except for maybe Thai.  Or Mexican.  Or Chinese.  Or Cajun/Creole.  Or Vietnamese.  Or Italian.  Or Middle-Eastern.  Or Greek.  Well, you get the drift.

But Indian is really, really, REALLY close to the top.

The fact of the matter is I like Indian food a lot.  A lot.  A whole lot.  I love Moghul food.  I love vindaloos.  I love biriyanis.  I love tandoor-cooked food, like chicken tikka and lamb kebabs.  I love Punjabi food, and Keralan food and Goan food.  I just love Indian food.  From all the ethnic and religious influences and differences comes a marvelous abundance of styles of cooking, flavors and play of spices I don’t think you’ll find in many other “national” cuisines.  Almost every time I eat “Indian” food (and with such a culturally and ethnically and religiously diverse land, it’s almost hard to classify it as a singular cuisine), I am amazed and delighted by the range of flavors presented on my plate.  Indian cooks have such a talent in using spices to bring depth and complexity to their food, I’m in awe with every bite.

I first fell in love with Indian food a bazillion years ago.  I was working for a small biotech company whose owner was Indian, from what region, I sadly never bothered to learn (what can I say, I was a snot-nosed, know-it-all-straight-out-of-college jerk who had no use for “old” folks).  His wife, who was Swedish (an *interesting* relationship to say the least) was an outstanding cook, and also worked at the company.  The chief chemist was also Indian (again, from what region I have no clue…my loss).  Eventually, his wife, who was also from India and a strict vegetarian, also came to work for us.  She too, was an amazing cook…totally from the soul, and totally without recipes.

By that time, my boss had taken my co-worker and me to several “thank-you” lunches at his favorite, local Indian dives.  In the area where the company was located, there was a large number of Indian immigrants.  The first time he took my cohort and me to an Indian lunch, we were a bit…skeptical.  After all, she was from Te-jas, and I was from SoCal.  This was truly foreign territory for us.  But as soon as we smelled the smells, and tasted the naan, and ate the food…..the sputtering tandoori chicken, like the most exotic fajitas you ever ate, and the luxurious pilaf and the creamy dal and the cool, soothing raita, we were hooked.

And then The Swedish Wife and The Indian Wife would bring leftover food in from home for their lunches, and when my counterpart (Hi Judi !) and I would go up to the lunch room, we’d literally be salivating, with our eyeballs rotating around in our heads like a cartoon character over the smells coming from the microwave.   And we’d beg for any small, minute, scanty little sample we could score.

Eventually The Swedish Wife and The Indian Wife both took pity on us greenhorns, and started bringing us lunch on a fairly regular basis.  And those were some of the most spectacular lunches I had in way, too many years of being a working stiff.

Thus began my long love affair with the cuisines of India.

Over the years, I decided I didn’t want to be limited to only experiencing Indian food when I went to a restaurant.  Other than the tandoor, which we talked about in my post about naan, none of the cooking techniques seemed out of my league.  (No, I haven’t won MegaMillions.  So, no, I still don’t have a tandoor.  Maybe next week….) The spices, for the most part, are not that hard to find, and if they are a bit more esoteric, there are usually fairly common alternatives.

So this, then, is my most recent homage to the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent.  It was the meal I had when I made my last batch of naan.  And it was damn good.

The header picture was the cast of ingredients.  Surprisingly enough, for this dedicated carnivore, the meal was vegetarian.  I’m not going to claim vegan, because I don’t know enough about the constraints that that regimen requires.  But it is veggie-friendly.

To review,

that's a cauliflower (in this case, a yellow one), some cilantro, tomatoes, sour cream, Greek yogurt, an onion, canned tomatoes, half a cuke, a jalapeno, some potatoes, ginger, garlic, garam masala, cayenne, turmeric, cumin seeds and two types of dal.

Dal is sort of a blanket term in Indian cooking that covers dried beans (chick peas, for example) and lentils.  The broad category of “pulses”.  Go on, Google pulses.  You’ll learn something.

One of the dals, in the large bag in the back, is called “channa dal”.  They’re basically yellow split peas, although slightly more tender.  They’re going to be used for the actual “dal” dish (think something along the lines of frijoles).  The other, small bag, off to the right side is called “dhana dal”, and they’re used as a garnish.  They’re actually roasted coriander seeds.

I used them in my raita.

So, the menu for the meal was aloo gobi, which is stewed, curried cauliflower, tomatoes and potatoes, masala dal, which is the yellow dal, heavily flavored and cooked down to a thick, almost pasty consistency, and raita.  Raita is a cooling yogurt-based salad that usually has cucumber and mint, with some tomato and chile pepper.  But I had no mint, so cilantro subbed, which is a fine replacement.

And of course, the naan, which we’ve already gone through.

Let’s start with the masala dal, since that takes the longest to cook.  Again, we’re dealing with dried pulses (you *did* Google that, didn’t you….?), and it’s not an instantaneous thing.  By the way, “masala” in most Indian dialects means “spice”.  Garam masala” means “spice mixture”.    Most true Indian cooks make their own garam masalas, although you can purchase it commercially, and it’s fine.

Sort the channa dal on a sheet pan.  For 4-6 servings, you want 1&1/2 cups of channa dal or yellow split peas.  This is one time, since these legumes are NOT usually produced in the U.S., that sorting is absolutely necessary.

I got these from a small, Indian grocery in the area.  You could substitute “grocery store” yellow split peas, but the channa dal is more authentic, and has a different taste and texture.  Unlike U.S. produced legumes, these actually had some pebbles and stuff, in addition to broken kernels that I needed to cull off.  Yeah, there weren't many, but you really wouldn't want to chomp down on one, would you?

Then rinse the dal thoroughly under running water.  Use a large enough strainer to allow water to flow easily (I didn’t….that spatial relationship thing again, oy).

And then put the dal in a large bowl (again, FAIL on me) and add enough hot water to cover by 1 inch.

Yeah, the bowl should’ve been deeper.  Look, I’ll be 150 years old by the time I get over that problem of mine.

Let the dal soak for an hour and then drain them off.

The kernels have noticeably swollen and softened after that time.  I was actually rather surprised that, after such a relatively short soaking time, the dal had changed that much.  I guess the rinsing and the hot water (plus the fact the kernels are small) gave them a jump start.

Put the dal in a saucepan along with 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and 4&1/2 cups water.

Bring them to a boil, and stir frequently to keep the dal from clumping together.  Then, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered for 45 minutes, or until the dal are tender when pressed with your fingers.  Give them a stir periodically to be sure they’re not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

When the dal is tender, you can either beat the heck out of them with a spoon or whisk, which eventually *does* work, or you can go all postal on them with one of these…

boat motor baby !

Blitz those pulses down into a nice, smooth puree.

You may need to add a bit of water to bring it up to the right consistency and quantity.  You want about 5 cups of the pureed dal.

At this point, you can keep it warm, cool it and stick it in the fridge, or even freeze it.  When you’re ready to serve, prepare your tadka.

A tadka is seasoned, spiced hot oil that gets poured onto the top of dal, pilafs or other creamy dishes as a final seasoning.

For this masala dal, you want to take 1/2C light vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, a couple of cloves of minced garlic, 1&1/2C of finely chopped onion….

And I mean finely chopped…

And a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Heat the oil in a small frying- or sauce pan until it is very hot, then add the cumin seeds, and fry until they get dark brown (that’ll be like about 10 seconds…).  Add the onions, and fry until they turn dark brown, stirring as needed to prevent them from burning.  That should take about 20 minutes.

At that point, stir in the cayenne, and immediately pour the seasoned oil and onions over the pureed dal.

Garnish with about 2 tablespoons of finely chopped cilantro and swoon.

Onto the raita, which I made while the dal was soaking….

Usually I make raita with mint.  Usually I use a LOT more cucumber than I did in this one, but I was making do with what I had in the larder.  One of the nice things about raita is that it is pretty adaptable to what’s in stock, and what your tastes are.

So, raita.

You need thick yogurt and sour cream.  I use Greek yogurt (Trader Joe’s, plain, full fat).  If you can’t find Greek yogurt, which is much thicker than regular yogurt, you could drain “normal” yogurt overnight, in the fridge, in a sieve lined with cheesecloth, set over a bowl to catch the whey.  Regular yogurt, without draining, IMHO, is just too runny for a good raita.

Again, for 4-6 servings, here are the proportions…

You want 1&1/2C thick yogurt and 1/2C sour cream.  Mix those together in a bowl.  This recipe is ultimately adaptable to quantity as well.  Just keep your ratio of yogurt to sour cream at 3 parts yogurt to 1 part sour cream.

Mince up some mint, about 2 tablespoons, or as I did, some cilantro leaves (the same amount).  Mince it small…

Mix that in with 1/2 teaspoon of roasted, ground cumin (or cheat as I did and just use cumin powder, although it is better with the roasted, ground seeds….but I was tired from the naan-ztravaganz-o).

Seed (and peel if they’re waxed) 1&1/2 pounds of cucumbers.  I used an English (hot-house) cuke, so I didn’t peel .  Cut 1 medium-sized ripe tomato in quarters, and scrape out the pulp and seeds with a spoon.  Cut a jalapeno or Serrano chile in half (depending upon your heat tolerance, but remember raita should be a cool interlude in a spicy meal) and discard the seeds and pith.

Slice the tomatoes into thin shreds.  It is SO much easier and SO much safer to do this from the inside of the ‘mater, skin side down.  Finely slice, or dice the cuke, and do the same to the chile pepper.  Yes, this raita is a bit more tomato-heavy than the “recipe” says…..I was light on cuke and heavy on tomatoes.  As I said, it’s ultimately adaptable.  I’ve made raita with radishes…..or with zucchini…..or with spinach.  It is, as they say, all good.

Normally, I’d have pulled out my cheap-ass mandolin, and shredded the cuke on the julienne blade, but, as I said I was tired from the naan-ztravaganz-o, and I skipped on by and used my knife.  It still tasted just fine.  Shredded cuke, is, however, much more typical, and I believe, traditional in a raita.  I just didn’t trust myself with a scary, razor-sharp mandolin that day.

Plop that into your bowl with the yogurt/sour cream mix, and I garnished, although not called for in the recipe with the dhana dal.  That gave it a nice little “crunchy” texture, and a subtle taste that I really liked.  I’ll be using the dhana dal again in raitas.  Stick the bowl back into the fridge to mellow for a bit while you're finishing up the rest of the meal.  For extended storage (like more than an hour or so), store the dressing separately from the chopped veg.  But fold the herbage into the creamy stuff for the flavors to extract well.  You can use dried mint (and I have), and if you do, the extraction/reconstitution rest step is critical.

And now, the main event…..the Aloo Gobi.

This whole meal actually came together because I had that head of yellow cauliflower I needed to use (soon) and some potatoes that had been hanging around a bit tooooooooo long.  So I figured aloo gobi, but I wanted something else to add to make a more complete, meat-free meal.  Hence, the dal and the naan.  Raita’s a standard for me, with any Indian food, so that was a given.

But the aloo gobi was the STAHHH, baby.

Since it’s a potato (aloo)/cauliflower (gobi, or gohbi) curry, we’ll obviously need potatoes and cauliflower…..Geee, ya think??  But before we get there, we need to get some aromatics and spices going.  This took place while the raita was chilling in the fridge, and the dal was perking along, before blitzing, on the back burner.  The tadka for the dal may have been going, it was more than 30 seconds ago, so I honestly don’t remember.  And there was a lot going on all at once….and I’m old…

Any way, the quantities below are for a small amount of aloo gobi, about 2 servings.  Which worked for me.  (Vulture dogs *LOVE* aloo gobi too, so they got any of the cauliflower I couldn’t finish.  No potatoes, though, it’s a personal, scary thing with dogs and potatoes for me.  I’ll tell you sometime).  I scaled the other recipes down, for me, from the proportions I’ve given you, so do what you need to get it to come out to the right number of servings of the aloo gobi for your purposes.  Again, a totally flexible recipe.

Heat about 1 tablespoon of oil in a large sauce pan or sauté pan.  I used a non-stick one, just because I didn’t want to deal with heavy-duty clean-up from sticking potatoes.  I’m a wuss, what can I say?  And there was that whole issue with the naan-ztravaganz-o, so the energy was flagging.  Add about 1/4 of a large onion, diced into a fairly large dice, and 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds.  Stir those together over med-high heat until the onions get soft and creamy.

Here they are at the start:

Then take about 1/4 of a bunch of cilantro, and separate the leaves from the stems.  This is one time you want to use the stems.  You’ll end up with 2 piles of cilantro like this:

Chop up the stems, and about 1/4 of a jalapeno.  Here they are with the onions, pre-sauté.

Add the cilantro stems, the jalapeno, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Stir around to get everything acquainted, and to bloom the turmeric, and then add one-half of a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes.  Stir in minced ginger and garlic to taste (I used about a tablespoon each, I likes my aloo gobi spicy, and sorry no pic, it’s sadly out of focus….).

Let that cook together for a few minutes, and then add in 3/4 of a large potato (or the equivalent of smaller ones, as I used), cut into even pieces…

and 1/4 of a large head of cauliflower, cut into eighths (or close).

Splash in some water to be sure that your curry won’t burn on the bottom.  Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are done.  Add in 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala (found in most grocery stores, most brands are just fine) and sprinkle over the chopped cilantro leaves. 

Cover, and let sit for a minute or two to let the flavors meld.  Serve with the dal, the naan and the raita.  Or as a side dish to tandoori roasted meats.

This was such a perfectly balanced, intensely flavorful, harmonious Indian meal, I couldn’t believe it came out of my little, gringo kitchen.  The aloo gobi was earthy and warm, and had a delightfully spicy back note from the chile and the cumin (which is probably my favorite spice…).  The sturdiness of the potatoes and cauliflower were such a nice contrast to the freshness of the cilantro.  Each flavor in the dish stayed distinct.  I could really taste the tomatoes, the cumin, the turmeric and the cilantro, which amazed me.  Even after a fairly extended cooking time, the freshness of the cilantro came through, especially in the stems.  They stayed tangy and true to their flavor.  And the aroma when that garam masala hit the hot pan at the very end was simply intoxicating.  It’s what I imagine walking through a market in Mumbai or Delhi must smell like.

But by the way…….turmeric, even a minute amount of it, stains like a….well, it stains a lot.  Don’t ask me how I know.

The raita, as always was a perfect, cooling, soothing counterpoint to the more deeply spiced, heavy dishes.  Think of it as a palate cleanser, sort of like that tangy sorbet served in the middle of a classic French meal.    And the dal was so complex, so much more than the sum of its parts.  The deepness it gained from that tadka, and the richness from the seasoned oil, made me forget there was no meat in the meal.

The dal and raita dishes were adapted from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni.  I love her books and her cooking.  The aloo gobi was a mash-up of about 5 recipes I found on the interwebs and fiddled with to my own taste, and my own taste memories of what I’d had from The Swedish Wife and The Indian Wife and those Indian dives from manys a moon ago.

Please try these classic Indian dishes.  You’ll love them.    I promise.

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