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.
Several weeks ago, Harold McGee wrote about making your own yogurt in the New York Times, and Mother’s Kitchen happened to post about it. It got me thinking I should give it a whirl, seeing as how I almost always have yogurt in the fridge and use it for a variety of purposes. It took me a few weeks to get around to it, but once I did, I wondered what on earth I had been waiting for. Call me converted!
The process itself couldn’t be simpler: just heat some milk to about 180 degrees (it will just be starting to steam), let it cool down to about 110, stir in a spoonful of yogurt, let it sit in a warm place, and let nature take its course. McGee provides specifics for keeping your yogurt warm, how long to leave it out, etc. but I found the “recipe” to be forgiving- I accidentally left my yogurt on the counter overnight rather than the 4 hours prescribed, to no ill effect.
McGee suggests that if you don’t have an “heirloom” starter, the major supermarket brands are actually the most reliable as they contain the most active cultures. I wanted to experiment a bit, so I bought small containers of both plain old Dannon and Fage Greek yogurt so I could taste-test and compare. For the milk, I just bought a gallon of organic milk from Meijer*. I made 2 cups of each type of yogurt. I obviously had lots of milk left over because I had planned on making homemade ricotta as well, but that’s another story. I taste-tested the two after they had chilled, and I couldn’t detect a huge difference- they both tasted more mellow and less sour than their originators, and both had a pleasant texture. Obviously, the yogurt from the Fage starter was unstrained, so it didn’t have the thickness of the purchased product, but that can easily be obtained with some cheesecloth and a strainer.
So, on to the economics: My total investment was about $3.35 for 8 cups of yogurt (actually, almost 9 cups, if you count the cup of purchased yogurt). Now, I don’t know where you shop, but the cheapest I have seen organic yogurt is at Trader Joe’s for $2.99 for 32 oz (4 cups). As you can easily see, this works out to about half price, especially when you consider that once you have your yogurt going, you can use that to start the next batch, so future batches would only cost as much as your milk. If you compare price to the individually-sized containers, the savings get even more ridiculous. And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth it time-wise, I really only spent a few minutes actively “doing” anything. As an added bonus, I love the thought of all the plastic containers it will save. I do recycle them, but even still.
Of course, over and above all of this, the satisfaction of knowing you made something from scratch is (as the ads would say) priceless.
*random linguistic aside: For some bizarre reason, many Southeast Michiganders feel compelled to add an “S” at the end of some business names, as in “I work at Ford’s”, or “I shop at K-Mart’s”. (In trying to avoid this awkward-sounding linguistic oddity, it even feels unnatural for me to say “Trader Joe’s”, and I sometimes overcompensate and call it “Trader Joe”…) So when typing “Meijer”, I actually had to check to see if it was in fact Meijer or Meijer’s. (It’s Meijer now, but it actually DID used to be Meijer’s, because the full name of the store was Meijer’s Thrifty Acres… anyone remember that?)
Sometimes I have this conversation with myself while pushing my cart down the frozen foods aisle at Trader Joe’s that goes something like this: “I should grab just a couple things for the nights I have rehearsal, or to take in my lunch…” “But if I buy this stuff, I’ll be less motivated to make food from scratch…” “But then I might just get lazy anyway and get carry-out, which is worse and more expensive…” I usually end up compromising and buying a couple items but promising myself I’ll only use them for “emergencies”. As much as I would love to be virtuous and cook fresh food every day, with a full time job as well as band practice and other obligations, it just ain’t gonna happen. However, when I do have to rely on shortcuts such as frozen food, I try to incorporate some other element to snazz it up a bit and make it my own.
Case in point: I recently discovered these really yummy vegetable patties from Trader Joe’s called Veggie Masala Burgers. The flavor of the patties is somewhat like vegetable samosa filling. They’re not really quite “veggie burgers” in my book; they don’t have the same texture (potatoes being the main ingredient, they’re too soft and mushy for my taste to eat between a bun). However, I do love to fry them up and then either eat them as an open-faced sandwich on well-toasted wheat bread, or cut them into small pieces and put them in a salad. My favorite veggies to go with this would be shredded carrot, cucumber, and cherry or grape tomatoes.
To drizzle over it all, I make a homemade salad dressing out of yogurt, olive oil, lemon, herbs and spices. This dressing is delicious AND has the added benefit of being healthier than most. I’m calling it Indian Goddess Dressing because the color reminds me of Green Goddess but the flavors are straight from India. I realize I may be leaving some people out in the cold here who don’t have a Trader Joe’s near them (or who aren’t into buying frozen prepared food), but the dressing alone is worth trying, especially to go on a green salad if you’re having other Indian food for supper.
Indian Goddess Dressing
This dressing takes its inspiration from the wonderful green cilantro chutney served at many Indian restaurants.
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 tbs olive oil
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves (tender stems are ok too if you’re using the food processor)
optional if you have any: 5-10 mint leaves
optional: 1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp curry powder
generous pinch of coarse salt
a few grinds of black pepper
1 tbs lemon juice
a pinch of sugar
If you are using the garlic, smash it with the flat part of a knife and put it in the olive oil for 5-10 minutes to infuse its flavor while you’re getting the cilantro ready. Remove the garlic and discard before proceeding. (I do enjoy garlic, but I feel that leaving it in would overpower the more delicate flavor of the herbs here.)
Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until the herbs are reduced to flecks. Alternately, if you don’t have a processor, whisk together everything but the herbs in a bowl. Mince the herbs as finely as possible and stir them into the dressing. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary by adding more salt, sugar or lemon. Makes enough for two large dinner salads.
Simple Indian Dressing (for when you don’t have any fresh herbs in the house): Whisk together yogurt, oil, lemon juice and seasonings. You may want to slightly reduce the quantity of curry powder in this version.
The other day I was craving earthy flavors, namely mushrooms. I bought a pound, not knowing exactly what I was going to do with them: perhaps do a pilaf with wild rice? or something with lentils? I was flipping through cookbooks and saw a mujadara recipe and thought, why not just add mushrooms? I liked the idea of mujadara because you have to make the super-caramelized onions for it, and I had been wanting to try out a new technique I read about on the blog Tigers & Strawberries. The final dish combination of lentils/bulghur/mushrooms satisfied my craving, and the sweetness of the caramelized onions rounded things out. (The only thing I would have changed is to increase the proportion of lentils to bulghur.) A dollop of lightly salted plain yogurt on top was the final component. If you have some on hand, a little sprinkle of finely chopped parsley adds a welcome fresh note to the dish as well.
Mujadara with Bulghur & Mushrooms (adapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden)
4 cups broth of your choice: chicken stock, vegetable or mushroom stock (see notes)
12 oz white mushrooms, or 8 oz white mushrooms & 2-3 oz dried porcinis (see notes)
3 medium or 2 large yellow onions (see notes)
1 1/4 cup bulghur (cracked wheat)
1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed & picked over
1 tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground allspice
pinch of cayenne
salt & pepper
optional garnishes: plain yogurt or a lemon wedge; chopped parsley
Notes: You can easily make this a classic mujadara by omitting the mushrooms and using chicken stock. For the liquid, I used a concentrated mushroom stock called “Better than Bouillon”. It’s a paste that comes in a little jar and it’s handy for soups, etc. If you’re using the dried porcinis, steep them in a cup or two of boiling water. When they’re rehydrated, fish them out and use the remaining water as part of your 4 cups liquid. You should either strain it or pour it very carefully so the sediment remains in the bowl.
For the onions, you may want to consider making extra since they take a little work. They’re so tasty and versatile that you can throw them in almost any dish. They also freeze well. For a lengthy set of instructions on how to properly brown onions, go here; otherwise just follow my summary below. If you do make extra onions, there’s a great recipe for a non-soup-mix onion dip here.
Directions: Put your 4 cups liquid in a medium-to-large saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. If you’re using porcinis, prepare as mentioned above. Peel the white mushrooms or brush clean with a dry cloth (don’t rinse!) and slice them. Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan and sauté them over medium heat, adding a little salt as they start to cook. Slice the onions in half lengthwise and then into half-moons as your mushrooms are cooking. When the mushrooms are almost done, stir in the porcinis. Set aside.
When your liquid comes to a boil, add the allspice, cayenne (up to you how much, but you’re going for a subtle warmth rather than hot & spicy) and tomato paste and stir well. Add the lentils and cook at a low simmer, covered, for 15 min. Add the bulghur and a little salt & pepper, taking into account the saltiness of your stock. Stir and cover. Cook over very low heat for another 15 min, adding water if it looks too dry at any point. Turn off the heat and leave covered for another 10 minutes until the bulgur is fully tender. Optional: stir in 3-5 tbs olive oil. (I forgot this step when I made mine, and it was still good and obviously less caloric.)
Meanwhile, heat a few tbs olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan (NOT non-stick!!!). A stainless steel pan is best (as opposed to cast iron) because then you can see your browning process better. When the oil is hot, add your onions, salt them in the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. The onions will take at least 30 minutes to get fully and properly browned, so be patient. Bear in mind that the higher the heat, the more you’ll have to vigilantly stir them. Keep a cup of water next to you, and each time the caramelized residue starts to build up on the pan (see photo above), add a SMALL splash of water and stir quickly to dissolve this buildup and re-incorporate the caramelization back into your onions. (When I did mine, I probably repeated this process at least 10 times.) You’re not done until your onions have a nice deep amber color. It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really just stirring, and when you taste the end result you’ll think it was all worthwhile.
To serve, stir in the mushrooms and onions. If you like, reserve a few of the onions to go on top (see photo). Garnish each serving with a spoonful of plain yogurt and a little chopped parsley. If you’re vegan or don’t have yogurt, a wedge of lemon might be nice.