This summer, in between trips to the florist and the seamstress and the hairdresser, I was working on a feature article accompanied by some listings of Hamtramck’s many ethnic grocery stores and markets. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Detroit area, Hamtramck (and no, I’m not missing a vowel, that is the correct spelling!) is a roughly 2-square-mile city, surrounded on all sides by Detroit and situated pretty much right in the middle of it. Originally settled by Polish immigrants, it is now home to a whole host of ethnic communities, Albanians, Bosnians, Yemenis and Bengalis being the most prevalent these days. Here’s a slideshow of images taken by Marvin on our excursions there:
Coincidentally, I also recently purchased the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Excited that I had finally obtained some ingredients I hadn’t previously been able to locate (amchoor, asafoetida, curry leaves and more), and in honor of the many Bengali stores I visited, I decided to make not just “Indian food” but a specifically Bengali/ Bangladeshi meal.* Continue reading
June 11 (only 10 days ago… it seems like months already!) was the second Gourmet Underground Detroit potluck picnic on Belle Isle. I won’t call it the second annual picnic, because I’m secretly hoping we’ll have another one before the year is out. Nomenclature aside, it was a grand old time- you can read my post about it and see some of Marvin’s photos on the GUDetroit website. Some of the highlights were: tree climbing, willow swinging, mint spanking, cornholing (ahem), hula hooping, river gazing, and getting to finally meet Warda (who I wrote about here) and her beautiful family.
My contribution to the gluttony was a platter of kebabs and kefta, with some raita and a sort of tomato-cucumber-herb relish/chutney on the side. I’ve been eating a fair amount of goat meat lately, for a few reasons: first, I just wanted something other than the “big three” of chicken, beef and pork (we’ve run out of venison); second, because goats aren’t a large scale factory farmed animal; and third, because they have a flavor similar to lamb (which I love) but are milder and less fatty (not to mention cheaper). I will say that goat leg meat is a huge pain in the ass to cut up, unless you’re ok with a lot of sinew; I tend to get obsessive and remove as much of it as I possibly can, which explains why my prep time was three times as long as it should have been. But while goat can sometimes be a little tough, mine was pretty tender as a result of the extra trimming. If you’re using it in a long-cooked dish, you wouldn’t need to go to that trouble.
I also made kebabs from ground lamb with a little beef mixed in, and tons of spices and vegetables blended in for flavor. I’m used to anything with ground meat being called kefta rather than kebab, but the name of the recipe was “chapli kebab” or “slipper kebab”, because the patties are in the shape of a chappal, or sandal. The recipe originates from Peshawar in India, not the Middle East or North Africa, but you’d never know it from eating it- the flavors are quite similar to kefta I’ve had in Middle Eastern restaurants but with a little less onion/garlic flavor and more herbs and spices.
We’ve all heard the term “armchair travel” to refer to reading books that take place in far-flung locales. Back in my 20s I did much more actual traveling- all over Europe and in Japan- but now, saddled with a mortgage and a 9-to-5, most of my travel is of the virtual variety. Some of that takes place between the covers of a book, but when I can, I try to take it a step further by “stovetop traveling”; cooking things with new and exotic flavors that make me feel a little less wistful about not getting to go places firsthand.
Clockwise from top left: dal, aloo gosht, cucumber raita, mango pickle, naan, tahiri, saag
A couple of books I’ve read recently have made me want to delve deeper into the flavors of India- first there was Modern Spice by Monica Bhide, and more recently, Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey. After finishing Jaffrey’s book, I could practically taste and smell the pungent spices of her homeland, and I immediately began plotting an Indian feast.
The dish Jaffrey describes as conjuring the most homey memories for her is Aloo Gosht (literally “Potatoes and Meat”), a popular dish in Northern India & Pakistan. This dish is not for the faint of palate- it’s a rich, savory riot of warm flavors- but the meat and potatoes place it firmly in the realm of “comfort food”. The meat in question when prepared in the U.S. is typically lamb; however, Jaffrey says that in India/Pakistan it would almost always be prepared with goat. In the spirit of authenticity, I tracked down some goat in a trip to Eastern Market. If you’ve never had goat meat before, I urge you to try it, especially if you like lamb. It’s less gamy, leaner, and a lot less expensive (try finding boneless lamb shoulder for $2.99 a pound!).
There are many recipes out there for Aloo Gosht, but most of them that I found seemed “dumbed down” compared to Jaffrey’s. Unlike some recipes (whose authors might be under the assumption that many ingredients are unavailable here?), she doesn’t skimp on the aromatics and spices. One thing I used in this recipe that was new to me was black cardamom. It is very different from green cardamom, the spice used in baking. It comes in a large black pod and has a smoky, earthy aroma. It wasn’t at all difficult to find; I picked it up at Penzey’s. Although I couldn’t distinctly pick it out in the finished curry, its flavor was definitely noticeable in the rice I made (a dish called Tahiri, an aromatic rice with peas- if you’d like to try it, Jaffrey’s recipe is reprinted word for word from her book here).
I followed the recipe to the letter as far as ingredients and quantities, but then parted ways with Jaffrey’s cooking method, which I didn’t really understand. She called for aggressively cooking the meat, whereas I opted for a longer, slower braise- I wanted the goat to be very tender, and I was afraid that cooking it over high heat would toughen the meat. She also would have had me add an additional three cups water towards the end, which made no sense to me at all since the consistency of the sauce seemed just right. Not to question the great Madhur Jaffrey, but who knows, different heat, cooking vessels, and a number of other variables can produce a different result- sometimes it’s best to just trust your instincts on these things because I don’t think my Aloo Gosht could have turned out more perfectly. I can see why this is a favorite over there; it’s definitely a dish that will reappear on my dinner table.
Aloo Gosht (Potato & Meat Curry) adapted from the book From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail by Madhur Jaffrey
2 lbs lamb or goat meat in 1 1/2-in. cubes, with or without bones
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 to 3 fresh hot green chilies, roughly chopped
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled & roughly chopped
1 1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper (use more or less to taste)
2 medium tomatoes (about 10 oz), chopped (if tomato quality is less than stellar, add a tsp or so of tomato paste)
1 3/4 tsp salt
2 whole black cardamom pods
1 medium cinnamon stick
1 lb small red waxy potatoes, peeled & cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (leave whole if small)
1/2 tsp garam masala
4 Tbs chopped cilantro
This is really a pretty straightforward and easy recipe, don’t be intimidated by the ingredients list. Most items should be readily available; if you can’t find black cardamom just leave it out. In her cookbook Jaffrey suggests asking an Indian grocer for “meat for curry” and you’ll get a mixture of boneless and bone-in already-cubed pieces. The butcher I went to only had boneless ready, but obliged me by taking a goat that was hanging up and cutting up some bone-in leg pieces for me.
Place the ginger, garlic and green chilies in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, stopping before you reach a paste. Put the coriander seeds in a clean coffee or spice grinder and grind to a coarse powder.
Pour the oil into a large heavy lidded pot such as a Dutch oven and set over medium high heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Stir in the ginger mixture and fry another 2 minutes. Add the meat and stir for a minute or so. Add the coriander, turmeric and cayenne. Add 1 cup water and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste (if using), salt, and another 2 cups water. Stir and cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, black cardamom and potatoes. Replace the cover and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the meat is very tender and the potatoes are cooked through.
Taste the sauce and correct for salt or spiciness if needed. If the sauce seems at all thin, you can cook uncovered for an additional 10 minutes or so to reduce it (I didn’t need to). It should be neither thick nor watery. Sprinkle with the garam masala and cilantro before serving. This curry is best served with rice and something cooling on the side such as cucumber raita (shredded cucumbers mixed with yogurt and a little salt) to balance the warm and savory flavors. Serves 6-8 as part of an Indian meal.
Although signs of spring are finally here, it was somewhat cold and gloomy the past couple weeks. Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India was just the book to transport me to balmier climes as I read about Madhur Jaffrey‘s rather idyllic childhood in Delhi in the 1940s. I bought this book a while ago when it first came out in paperback, but with my backlog of must-read books, it took me a while to get to it. However, I’ve been on somewhat of an Indian food kick lately, so, to the top of the pile it rose.
The book was a wonderful example of the memoir-with-emphasis-on-food genre. The stories flowed naturally, and the mentions of food were neither stilted nor overly sentimental. The daily routine in her household compound included meals with 50+ people at a time- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and the patriarchal paternal grandfather (Babaji) at the helm of it all. In the Indian tradition, adult children (i.e. the male sons and their families) were practically required to live under the same roof as the grandfather, so Jaffrey grew up with dozens of cousins to run around with. Even still, she describes feeling lonely at the center of all that familial chaos. Jaffrey was a bit of a tomboy, but also portrays herself as a “sensitive soul”, which would probably explain her getting into acting in her teens (Jaffrey had a career in film and television before becoming a world-renowned cookbook author).
The family must have been wealthy by Indian standards, as the daily meals described sound like nothing short of a feast. Prepared by servants, with the women of the house contributing some dishes, the meals typically contained several courses, accompanied by an array of chutneys and freshly prepared flatbreads such as parathas and pooris. Dinners were preceded by what the French call l’apéro: drinks and light snacks such as nuts. Eventually, upon Babaji’s cue, the clan would proceed to the dining table, which was so long that you could barely see who was at the other end. The gatherings would continue on into the evening, sometimes with a musical performance or poetry reading, ending only when Babaji was sated.
Jaffrey grew up during a fascinating time in Indian history. The book is set against the backdrop of British colonial rule, the rise of Gandhi and the strife of Independence and Partition. Jaffrey’s family was fortunate to survive that tumultuous period relatively unscathed, but she wistfully describes how the changes affected her young life, such as the fact that most of her Muslim school friends were forced to leave Delhi. In spite of the many unsettling and disruptive aspects of Partition, Jaffrey strikes a positive chord describing all the new foods that that were introduced to Delhi as a result of the migrations of groups from other parts of India. Jaffrey describes the “exotic” foods shared with her by classmates of different religious and ethnic backgrounds- Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc. Of course, their food always seemed more appealing than what she had brought in her own lunch box! The popular Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal opened during this time period as well, introducing many of the foods that would become Indian restaurant staples in the U.S.
At the end of the book is a section of family recipes. I made Tahiri (rice & peas) from this book, as well as Aloo Gosht (Meat & Potato Curry) and Kale in Mustard Oil from two of Jaffrey’s other cookbooks. All were absolutely delicious- follow the link above for my post on the Aloo Gosht.
Even though I have a ridiculous amount of cookbooks, I never tire of exploring new ones. In pursuit of some new flavors to perk up my repertoire, I recently picked up Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide, a wonderful book in which Monica’s Indian heritage merges with her creative, contemporary approach to cooking and entertaining. I’ve been following Monica on Twitter for a while, but hadn’t used any of her cookbooks until now (I’ve been missing out!). The book has recipes for Indian food in the sense that Monica is Indian and she came up with the recipes, but instead of Indian restaurant staples such as Lamb Korma or Chicken Vindaloo, you’ll find recipes like Saffron Mussel Stew and Curried Egg Salad with Caramelized Onion.
In the introduction to Modern Spice, Monica discusses the question of “what is ‘authentic’ Indian food?”. This really hit home with me because I know I do sometimes get hung up on what the “correct” or “truly” authentic version of something may be, instead of just being concerned with whether it tastes good! I think it’s mostly because, especially when trying a new ethnic or regional dish, I want some sort of baseline from which I can measure whether or not variations are preferable to the “original”. But as Monica astutely points out, her mother’s version of “authentic lentils” is quite different from the “authentic lentils” of her mother-in-law! With that in mind, I am going to try to have a more open mind about recipe sources and culinary traditions. Monica’s approach to Indian food reminds me of Clotilde Dusoulier‘s approach to French food- taking a culinary foundation and riffing on it in new and exciting ways.
Thus newly inspired, last weekend I made an Indian feast: three recipes from Modern Spice, as well as two from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. I mainly chose the recipes based on what I had in the pantry and fridge (dried yellow split peas, a frozen bag of okra, a bunch of cilantro, a few beets, some yogurt) and then added a couple items (acorn squash, some trout) to round out the menu. From Modern Spice I made Beet Salad with Yogurt Dressing, Acorn Squash with 5 Spices, and Pan-Fried Trout with Mint-Cilantro Chutney. I added Madhur Jaffrey’s Sweet & Sour Okra and Masoor Daal for variety and to ensure I had plenty of leftovers to take in my lunch all week.
Of all the dishes, the acorn squash was my favorite, so that’s the recipe I’ll share. The trout was delicious too, but you probably don’t need a recipe- all it entails is pan-frying the trout and drizzling the chutney on top. The chutney recipe Monica gives (mint, cilantro, green chile, red onion, lemon juice) is a little astringent for my taste, probably because I’m used to a similar restaurant chutney that has coconut milk in it. However, in keeping with her liberal philosophy on following “rules”, she does say in the instructions that this chutney can be varied however you like, with the addition of yogurt or other ingredients.
In addition to some great recipes (any book with a cocktail chapter is copacetic as far as I’m concerned), Monica is a talented writer. Regardless of how many recipes you try, the interludes between chapters, where she shares personal stories and experiences, make the book worth reading cover-to-cover. If you’re seeking uncomplicated ways to jazz up your cooking and a good read to boot, look no further than Modern Spice for inspiration.
3 ½ cups acorn squash, peeled and diced in ¼-inch dice (see notes)
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil or ghee (see notes)
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp paanch phoron
pinch of asafetida (see notes)
2 large or 4-6 small shallots, diced
1 green serrano chile, minced
1 dried whole red bird’s eye chile
¼ tsp salt to start
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ cup water
warm honey (optional)
Notes: Monica indicates that a “medium” squash will give the necessary 3 ½ cups. Looks are deceiving- I used a squash that looked small to me and it yielded 4 ½ cups! Try to select a squash whose grooves are not too deep for easier peeling. For the spices, I found paanch phoron at World Market; I’m not sure where else you could find it unless you have access to Indian markets (except, of course, online). I have not yet been able to locate any asafetida. It is described as having an oniony/ garlicky aroma, so perhaps a clove of garlic smashed, fried in the oil and then removed could be substituted. Last but not least, Monica calls for vegetable oil, but I chose to substitute ghee for a slightly richer flavor- I don’t think she would mind.
Directions: Peel and dice your squash, discarding the “guts”. The skin of an acorn squash is not thick and can be removed with a vegetable peeler.
Warm the oil or ghee in a large lidded skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds, paanch phoron, asafetida, and shallots. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the shallots begin to color.
Add the green chile, red chile (I crumbled mine for extra heat), and squash, mixing well. Add the salt and turmeric and stir. Raise the heat to medium high and cook for about 5 minutes, until the squash begins to brown. (My squash never did brown- maybe I needed more heat?)
Add water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the squash is totally soft and the water has almost dried up, about 20 minutes (mine was soft in less time; you may want to check it after 10-15 min so as not to overcook).
Serve hot, drizzled with warm honey if desired. I kind of forgot about the honey, but I want to try it next time, as I love sweet and spicy flavors together. Monica recommends about 2 teaspoons for the entire dish, so if you’re adding the honey per portion, do it sparingly.