Tag Archives: spicy

Why Indian Food is Fantastic (plus vegan recipe!).

Recently, while kicking around ideas for where to have dinner, a friend asked me, “Why do vegetarians always want to go to an Indian restaurant?” This is something I’ve been pondering for a few days now.

 I decided to become vegetarian shortly before my 17th birthday. My older brother took me out for my birthday, to the only Indian restaurant in town. It was my first experience with Indian food, and the memory is a happy one. I ate baigan bharta, a puree of roasted eggplant with peas stirred into it. It was rich, savory and perfumed with spices I’d never encountered before. In that moment, I felt I was eating something exotic and exciting.

 If I thought I had experienced something unique, I had only to go to the movies. Indian restaurants are usually portrayed in American cinema as the realm of the uber-cultured and the free spirited (think the 1995 remake of Sabrina and Along Came Polly), some sort of transcendent, worldly food experience. Perhaps it’s like this often, the first time someone eats curry or a korma. I think that’s partly because Indian food has yet to enter the mainstream of U.S. cuisine. Unlike Mexican- or Italian-influenced food, most of us are old enough to remember the first time we encounter Indian food. That initial taste of Indian cuisine is likely to be a complete sensory experience – surrounded by the fragrance of spices, décor imported from India, perhaps with a pop song in Hindi in the background.

 When one moves beyond the novelty of that first experience, the feelings this cuisine evokes can grow into something entirely different. For me, Indian food is satisfying and comforting. It sates a craving, puts me in a good mood, makes me feel cozy. It is simple food, rustic even, elevated by the use of aromatic spices and cooking techniques calculated to maximize flavor. It sticks to the ribs and can be eaten without having to worry about whether or not the cook knows that chicken stock isn’t vegetarian. At an Indian restaurant, vegetarians are not relegated to the usual choice between pasta in an over-salted cream sauce and a salad ordered sans chicken. I cannot speak for others, but that is why I “always” want to eat at an Indian restaurant.

 Sometimes, though, I like to make my Indian food at home. I often change recipes a little bit to reflect what’s in my cupboards, so my Indian cooking is usually somewhat inauthentic. What follows is pretty close to the real deal, except for the bread, which is nothing like naan but still absolutely scrumptious with a spicy stew such as the one below. 

Something Like Chana Masala

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 5 cups cooked chickpeas

1 ½ pounds plum tomatoes (5 or 6 of them, usually)

2 cups diced onion

3 cloves of garlic, minced

2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced

8 cups water

1 tsp. oil

2 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. red pepper (more or less depending on your tolerance for heat; 1 tsp. is medium-spicy)

1 tsp. curry powder (the generic kind sold in most groceries)

½ tsp. salt

Additional salt, to taste

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 Directions: Place a small strainer over a bowl. Seed the tomatoes over the strainer to save juices. I like to cut off both ends of the tomato and then carefully push the seeds from one end out the other.

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Discard the seeds, dice the tomatoes and add them to their juice. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, ginger, ½ tsp salt and garlic and saute for 7-8 minutes, until onions begin to turn translucent. Add the spices to the pan and stir constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, until they become fragrant.

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Add tomatoes, water and chickpeas. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low. Simmer for 2 hours.

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Liquid should be thick, reduced to a level slightly below chickpeas and tomatoes. Salt to taste and serve with rice or flatbread.

 Non-Naan

 ¾ cup warm water

1 tsp. maple syrup or granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ tsp. yeast

scant tsp. salt

oil (canola or light-tasting olive work best)

 Directions: Combine yeast, water and sweetener in a mixing bowl that holds at least 4 cups. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. The top should be foamy. Add flour and salt and knead for 8-10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to create a dough that is stretchy and moist but not sticky. Divide the dough into 8 portions, and roll each portion into a ball (balls should be about the size of golf balls). Drizzle the dough balls with oil and roll each one in your hands to coat. Cover loosely with a towel or plastic and let the dough rest and rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled.

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Heat a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of oil to coat the pan. Flatten a dough ball, stretch it gently until it is thin and somewhat translucent in places (it’s ok if the edges are a little thicker than the rest). It should stretch to about the size of a saucer. Place the dough in the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes.

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When there are spots of golden brown on the pan side of the bread, flip it over and cook for 1-2 more minutes, or until the other side of the bread is also beginning to brown. Repeat for each dough ball.

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Much Better than Cold Leftovers from the Indian Place.

I derive lots of pleasure from cooking on my days off. I feel that the lack of exhaustion from other factors really opens up my creativity. Plus, I’m usually home alone, so I can pretend to be an expert. While I cook, I give instructions to an imaginary audience, artfully chopping and stirring, pretending that the pot-watching is time-lapsed and all of the spills, hunting for things in the fridge, and other snafus are edited out.

Yeah, whatever. Like you’ve never done it.

Couple my love of experimentation with the fact that it’s July in Maine and I live in an attic, and you will find today’s experiment: Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer (no oven necessary!).

The experimental part of this dish was the paneer. In case you’ve never had the extreme pleasure of eating paneer, it is a simple cheese common in Indian cuisine. It is often called “Indian cottage cheese” or some such, but if you hate cottage cheese, don’t be put off by that description as it is nothing like the cottage cheese you will find at the grocery store here in the U.S. I had never made paneer before today, and it turned out wonderfully. Please do not be intimidated by the prospect of making cheese in one afternoon.

I started off by making the paneer, using the fabulously detailed video and written instructions I found at Manjula’s Kitchen, a blog by (who else) Manjula (direct link to the paneer recipe at bottom of post). Manjula’s Kitchen is a fantastic blog that can teach you all sorts of things about cooking Indian food. One of my favorite things about Manjula is that her kitchen is very modest but always incredibly tidy. I find this truly inspiring and I have been working hard to be as neat and clean as Manjula while I cook. In addition, Manjula, like me, has to work with an electric range, and I feel for her.

When the active portion of paneer-making was through, I simmered some lentils in water with 3 smashed cloves of garlic and some salt, turmeric and dried ginger. I think I should have used Puy (French) lentils, because they are rumored to be better at holding their shape when cooked. But I made do with the green lentils I had on hand, and the resulting dish was nonetheless delicious.

While my cheese pressed and my lentils cooled, I whipped up a nice, zingy dressing. The recipe and measurements for this experiment in Indian-Tree hugger fusion cuisine follow below. If you read this recipe through, you will notice that it seems incredibly long. It’s not, so don’t be scared! Everything is super easy to do. I just thought I would lay it out in the same steps I used for completing it, so it takes up a little extra space.

Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer

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Paneer:

Follow the recipe and instructions from Manjula’s Kitchen. I used a local, organic milk because I figured it would make a nice cheese. I was right, so consider it.

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I was very excited when my paneer began to look like Manjula’s:

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I strained it as directed and weighted it with a cast iron skillet.

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I used approximately 3/4 of the resulting paneer for the salad.  I gently crumbled it into large chunks.

Lentils:

3 Cups water

1 ½ Cups lentils

1 tsp. Kosher salt

½ tsp. Turmeric

½ tsp. Dried, powdered ginger

3 cloves garlic, smashed

Bring to a boil over high heat, then drop down to medium-low heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still just a bit toothsome. Drain and chill. Remove garlic cloves.  I spread my lentils on a plate to help them cool faster.

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Dressing:

Juice of 1 ½ limes*

½ tsp. Freshly ground cumin

½ tsp turmeric

2 tsp. Fresh ginger**

2 tsp. Kosher salt

½ tsp. Red chile flakes (I used a teaspoon, but I love all things spicy. If you love all things spicy, follow my lead!)

2 small cloves garlic, minced

Additional fresh ingredients, chopped to approximate size of lentils:

1 tomato, seeded

1 cup red onion

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Directions:

Stir it all together and chill for 30 minutes minimum. Eat!  I ate mine with a bit of pita, which is not Indian but quite delicious.

* I know that the fancy chefs on the television squeeze citrus halves upturned, using their fingers to keep seeds out of the food. I always feel like I’m wasting all kinds of juice on my hands when I do that, so I usually juice citrus halves cut side down, over a small mesh strainer. If you want to use the finger-filter method, go right ahead, but you might have to adjust the lime juice.

** I recommend using a Microplane grater for the ginger, because that is the simplest way to mince it. However, as a frequent Rambo cook with a limited selection of kitchen tools, I fully understand that not everyone owns a Microplane. If you do not, you have two options. 1. Use any grater intended to finely shred things. 2. Peel the ginger, then slice thinly against the grain, using a large knife. Chop slices until ginger is minced.

Recipe for paneer