Friday, February 7, 2014

Around the World...India

In my Flavor Profile on spices many moons ago, I mentioned that I love Indian food. With its bold, assertive flavors, and vegetarian dishes that are far from boring, it's no surprise that this cuisine is so popular the world over.

Indian cuisine reflects a 5,000 year history of various groups and cultures interacting with one another, leading to diversity of flavors and regional cuisines. Later, the British and Portuguese added their influence to the already diverse Indian cuisine. And diverse it is - there are at least 36 regional cuisines in India!!

The development of these cuisines was shaped by Dharmic beliefs, and in particular by vegetarianism, which is a growing dietary trend in Indian society. A normal diet in early India consisted of fruit, vegetables, grain, eggs, dairy products, honey and sometimes meat. Over time, segments of the population embraced vegetarianism, primarily due to the advent of Buddhism, as well as a climate that permitted a variety of fruit, vegetables and grains to be grown throughout the year.

Staple foods of Indian cuisine include pearl barley, rice, whole-wheat flour, and a variety of lentils, peas and mung beans. Some pulses, such as chickpeas and kidney beans are very common, especially in the northern regions. These are sometimes also processed into flour.

The most important and frequently used spices are whole or powdered chili pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, coriander, and garlic. One popular spice mix is garam masala, a powder that typically includes five or more dried spices, especially cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Each culinary region has a distinctive garam masala blend.

These are wonderful spices! No matter how many you throw together, you have a winning combination and can't go wrong. These warming spices satisfy my love for flavorful food when sometimes nothing else will do. 

Years ago I enrolled in a 12-week cooking class which was a ton of fun. This was "hands-on" training - not just sitting there watching someone else cook.  I had signed up to be part of the prep team. We chopped things up and prepared the "mise en place" for the chef. We'd get there a few hours before class started and learn.

What was so great about this course was that each week we learned about and then tested another cooking technique. It kept things very interesting. One week we made pastry and bread dough, another week we sauteed, smoked, or roasted. The night we braised, we prepared these dishes. (Braising, by the way, means to cook slowly, in a covered pot, with a little bit of liquid).

We prepared all 3 of these recipes one night. They were really good and went well together for a complete vegetarian meal. It is a lot of chopping, so it's best to plan to make all 3 on a weekend when you have a little more time. The good news is you'll have a lot of leftovers that you can freeze and take out when you don't have time to cook during the week!

Vegetable Curry

1/4 cup clarified butter (ghee)
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-4 Tbsp. curry powder depending on how much you like
1 1/2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (Pomi tomatoes by Parmalat are great if you don't want to chop)
2 large boiling potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 small cauliflower, separated into florets
about 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 pound green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
10 oz. frozen "petite-style" peas
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large saute pan, heat butter, add onion and saute until softened, about 1 minute. Add ginger, garlic, and curry and saute 1 minute more. Add tomatoes and simmer for 2 minutes uncovered.

Add potatoes and cauliflower and enough stock to cover. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently until potatoes are somewhat tender. Add green beans, peas and more stock if necessary. Cover and simmer until all vegetables are tender (depending on how cooked you want everything to be). The entire cooking process should take about 45-60 minutes. 

Remove from heat, add herbs, toss well, season to taste with salt and pepper, and adjust seasonings.

Lime Saffron Rice

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 gram saffron threads, ground in a mortar and pestle
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
11 oz. basmati rice (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 oz. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place stock, saffron, salt and rice in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes until liquid has been absorbed.
Remove from heat, cover with a clean dry towel, the lid, and allow to stand covered until the rice is fluffy and the liquid has been absorbed, about 5 min. more. Fluff with a fork or wet rice paddle.
Add butter and lime juice, stirring gently and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add 2-4 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro or parsley on top before serving.

Mango Salsa

3 ripe mangoes*, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped lime zest
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tsp. sugar (or more if fruit isn't well ripened)
1 pinch of salt

Toss all ingredients together gently in a bowl. Serve within 1 day. Variation: add 4 Tbsp. chopped freshly cilantro or mint. You can substitute 3 cups of any peeled and chopped ripe fruit (nectarines, papaya, peaches, etc.). Can also be served over grilled fish or with tortilla chips.

* Since mangoes are typically in season May - September, try Trader Joe's for mango, already cubed, in the freezer section. Makes this recipe even easier, just thaw before using.

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