Thursday, February 17, 2011

You are now leaving your comfort zone

OK, kids, we've been lolling around the culinary warm waters quite awhile now.  And now that I've reeled you in, I want to take you on a little diversion.  Sure, the familiar is great, it's comforting.  But it can also get tiresome if you're the least bit inclined to be a culinary adventurer, unafraid to color outside the lines, live large and think outside the Jack-in-the-Box.

I cannot remember when I was first drawn to the culture of India and its surrounding Asian cousins, but the pull is strong and deep.  For many years, I have been convinced that I have had another life in India, because the craving for the complex layers of spices and fiery chilies can only be satiated by totally immersing myself in about three weeks of intensive cooking this incredibly imaginative cuisine.  I could happily be a vegetarian if I had assistance with food prep because the varieties of vegetable curries, sambars and dals is endless.  And I could sing an aria about my love for basmati rice, a long-grained non-sticky rice which is wonderfully fragrant in a nutty, slightly floral way.  In fact, the Sanskit word for this kind of rice means "fragrant one," and it is the basis for many aromatic and delectable dishes such as biryanis and pulaos, not to mention kheer, the Indian rice pudding that is scented with saffron and cardamom and often studded with golden raisins and pistachios or cashews.  On board yet?

I will want to share my love of other Asian cuisines with you in future, but today I offer some of the foods I've been craving and preparing this week.  The dal recipe I've included is aromatic, mild and is one of the most simple to put together with common ingredients in your pantry.  But this is just the beginning, because dal (Sanskrit for "to split) is a generic term for any kind of dried split legume or whole pulse/bean/pea such as garbanzo (or chana dal), pigeon peas (or toor dal), or red lentils (masoor dal).  The combinations and varieties are virtually endless.

I've also included a recipe for spinach that incorporates the rich flavor of coconut and warm spices without the typical American association of sweetness.  Coconut oil is actually a very healthful cooking oil and is valued for its its antibacterial and antifungal properties (among other things) as well as its flavor.  In India, coconut oil is used mostly in the western regions, near Kerala (where the best bananas in the world are grown!) and the coastal regions, which rely on fish and seafood for protein in addition to the legumes that are a staple in most Indian diets.

The third recipe is for a silky, fragrant, and moderately fiery eggplant curry that actually originated in Sri Lanka, the island off the southeastern tip of India.  This is more of a "dry" curry than the ones you may have eaten that are typically more like a soup or stew.  But dry curries are popular on the main continent of India as well, so this will be an introduction for you.  I would highly recommend that you try any of these dishes with basmati rice.

What kind of wine could you serve?  Dry or off-dry whites with fruity, floral and aromatic qualities are what seem to harmonize best.  So my first pick would be a dry reisling, a dry gewurtztraminer or a gruner veltliner.  What I had last night was a blend of varietals called One 2007 (Alsace).  I can't describe this wine any better than it describes itself on the back label: "...a fusion of delicate floral aromas with fresh fruit flavors...crisp, dry, and well-bodied..."  In other words VERY YUMMY AND REFRESHINGLY CRISP.  Don't overchill this wine!  In fact, don't overchill any white wine.  I made the mistake of speed-chilling in my freezer (naughty, naughty) to too low a temperature.  It took a long time for this wine to open up and release its lovely characteristics, but when it did, it complemented my meal very well.  Thank you oh so very much, wine guy extraordinaire at Spec's!

Finally, there are two introductory cookbooks I would recommend if you too get bitten by the India bug.  The first is a small, hard to find and possibly out of print paperback called Curries Without Worries by Sudha Koul.  This is a great little book to start you out gently in the ways of Indian cookery.  The second is a more recent book entitled 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer.  It has a mind-blowing array of recipes that are very doable for the novice.  Both books are wonderfully helpful and charming to read.

Ap ka khana svadista ho!  That's Hindi for bon appetit!


 This dal freezes beautifully and is mildly spicy.  You can adjust the heat  by increasing or decreasing the chilies.  You can also gently toast the spices to incorporate a smokier flavor.

1 cup lentils (can use brown lentils, French lentils, red or yellow lentils)
6 cups water
salt to taste
3 ripe medium-size tomatoes, chopped (when I'm in a hurry, I use canned)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated (peel with a vegetable peeler first or scrub well)
4 Tbs. ghee (clarified butter) or oil
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 dry hot red peppers

chopped fresh coriander and plain yoghurt for garnish

Put all ingredients except coriander and yoghurt in a medium-size soup pot and bring to a boil on high heat.  Reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are tender.  This takes about 30 minutes, or more if lentils are older and tougher.  At this stage, you can use an immersion blender (or regular blender) to partially puree the dal.

When the dal is done, serve it will coriander and yoghurt along with rice or chapatis (Indian griddle breads similar to pitas).  Serves 4-6 people.

Vambotu Curry
            Sri Lankan Eggplant Curry  (from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian)

The beauty of this vegetarian curry is in the toasted spices that cling to the eggplant.  Coconut milk mellows the heat and an optional yogurt and cilantro garnish will cool the heat index down a bit.  Serve this curry with basmati or jasmine rice.  Make it as hot as you like—you can add up to 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper.  To really get the full impact of this dish, grind your spices fresh (and separately) if you have a clean coffee mill.

1 lb. eggplant (this is lovely with any kind of eggplant: Japanese, Italian, white, or a combination of any)
2 Tbs. peanut or other mild oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. ground fennel
½ tsp. ground cayenne (or up to 2 tsp. if desired)
4 tsp. fresh lime or lemon juice
1 small cinnamon stick
15 fresh curry leaves (or substitute Thai basil if in season if you must)
1 small onion (approx. 2 oz.) peeled and cut into fine half-rings
¾ cup coconut milk from a well-stirred can
2 tsp. ground brown mustard seeds
Greek yogurt  (optional)
Chopped cilantro  (optional)

1.    Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
2.    Cut the eggplant into ½ inch slices, then cut each slice into wedges about 1 inch in size.  For larger eggplants, you will get between 4 to 8 wedges per slice, depending on the size of the eggplant.  Put the eggplant wedges in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then add cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel, and cayenne.  Drizzle with 1 Tbs. oil and toss everything together until eggplant pieces are coated with spices and oil.
3.    Spread eggplant pieces on a large baking sheet and roast in oven for about 15 to 20 minutes.  The eggplant should take on a reddish tone and the spices should become very fragrant.  If it doesn’t seem toasted enough, turn on the broiler unit and finish toasting, watching carefully so eggplant doesn’t burn.
4.    Remove roasted eggplant from oven and return to bowl; drizzle with fresh lime juice and toss gently.  Set aside.
5.    Put the remaining 1 Tbs. oil in a large frying pan or wok (non-stick works best) and set over medium-high heat.  When oil is hot, put in the cinnamon stick and very quickly after that, the curry leaves.  
6.   Stir and put in the onion, continuing to stir-fry for about 2 minutes, or until onion has browned a bit. 
7.   Put in the seasoned eggplant, stirring and tossing for about 4 minutes.  
8.   Combine the coconut milk with the mustard seeds and pour over the eggplant.  As soon as the mixture starts to bubble, turn heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes, stirring gently now and then.
9.   Check for seasoning and correct for salt, cayenne and lime.  
10. Serve hot with rice.  To garnish, scatter with cilantro leaves.  Yogurt on the side will cool the spiciness if you desire.  Serves 3 to 4.

Coconut Spinach

Think nutty, creamy, and addictive.  The coconut oil adds great depth and the yogurt adds creaminess and tang.  Make this side dish as hot as you would like.

1 heaping Tbs. virgin coconut oil (such as Central Market Organics brand)
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 lb. baby spinach leaves
¼ tsp. plus 1 pinch garam masala (you can find this in an Indian grocery store
            or at Fiesta Market; alternatively, contact me for recipes to make your
            own fresher tasting, very easily)
1/8 tsp. (or more) ground cayenne pepper
½ cup Greek yogurt (you can strain any good quality plain yogurt with equally
            good results)
2 Tbs.  unsweetened dessicated coconut, optional  (this is not the same as Baker’s coconut, which is sweetened; you can find this at an Indian grocery store or Fiesta Market)

1.      Heat coconut oil in large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until rippling; add chopped onion and salt.  Saute until onions are slightly caramelized, being careful not to burn.

2.      Add spinach leaves and cover to create steam, lifting cover to stir spinach occasionally.  Continue to steam and stir until spinach is wilted and coated with coconut oil and onion mixture.

3.      Add garam masala and cayenne and stir well; add Greek yogurt and heat through, stirring well.  Yogurt will create a creamy sauce.  Garnish with unsweetened coconut, if desired.  Serves 4.

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