Sunday, August 27, 2006

First Foray into Indian Cuisine

I recently finished the novel Brick Lane by Monica Ali. The book portrays a Bangladeshi family living in London. The main character is often in the kitchen preparing food – dhal and bhajias along with various spices, rice, and tea figured prominently. I never bothered to research any of these dishes as I was reading. They seemed vaguely Indian. But as I meandered through the bargain book section Borders last weekend, I came across one of those $5.99 cookbooks – large, lots of pictures, geographically focused. This one was entitled India’s 500 Best Recipes by Shehzad Husain, Rafi Fernandez, Mridula Baljekar, and Manisha Kanani. The tag line stated “A vibrant collection of spicy appetizers, tangy meat, fish and vegetable dishes, breads, rices and delicious chutneys from India and South-East Asia, with over 500 photographs.” I thumbed through it and was pleased to find lots of recipes that did not contain curry (I have not yet acquired a taste for curry). The book was cheap enough, so I purchased it. I discovered that dhal means lentil and that bhajias are snacks of fried gram flour and vegetable batter.

For last night’s dinner I selected two recipes that were fairly simple and that did not require me to visit an Asian/Indian market. And, of course, I slightly adjusted a couple of ingredients.

The first dish was Karahi Chicken & Tomatoes with Mint

2 skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips

1 to 2 cups of water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped (the recipe called for scallions, but The Fresh Market was out of them)

1 teaspoon fresh shredded ginger root

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (the recipe called for crushed dried red chilies – is this the same thing?)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro (also called coriander)

1 tablespoon fresh chopped mint

2 tomatoes, peeled and deseeded using my handy-dandy peeler deseeder (the recipe called for 3 tomatoes peeled, deseeded, and roughly chopped – I’m not partial to tomato chunks, thus, the need for a deseeder; the deseeder usually produces much more liquid than deseeding by hand, thus the decrease in number of tomatoes)

And now to the preparation: Place the chicken and water in a pot and let come to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and simmer for about 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Set pot of chicken aside. Heat oil in a heavy pan and add the onions. Cook onions until tender over medium to low heat. Add the chicken (without the liquid) and stir-fry for 3-5 minutes on medium heat (let the chicken water/broth cool and freeze it for later use). Add shredded ginger, crushed red peppers, lemon juice, cilantro, mint, tomatoes, and salt. Let mixture simmer (15-20 minutes) until most of the tomato liquid has reduced, stirring occasionally.

I really liked the lemon juice in this dish. The mint was a bit understated and the crushed red peppers added minimal heat (but this could have been due to the heat in the second dish). The fresh tomato sauce was familiar since I make fresh sauce for pasta from time to time. The boiling of the chicken before adding it to the frying pan was an interesting technique to ensure the doneness of the chicken. The chicken maintained its moistness throughout the cooking process.

The second dish was Balti Stir-Fried Vegetables with Cashew Nuts. The original recipe served four people; I pared it down for two.

1 carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks

1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cut into matchsticks (the recipe also called for a green bell pepper which I omitted)

1 zucchini, cut into matchsticks and slated to draw out excess water (the recipe also called for green beans which I omitted)

1 small onion, chopped (once again, The Fresh Market was out of scallions)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

6 bay leaves (the recipe called for curry leaves; I did not have curry leaves and had noticed in another recipe that bay leaves could be substituted; I have no idea as to the flavor differences)

½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon crushed red peppers (the recipe called for 4 dried red chilies)

A handful of cashews (or more) to taste

1 teaspoon salt (I used Haleakala Red from Soul of the Sea because I had it on hand)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat the oil in a wok or heavy pan and fry the bay leaves, cumin seeds, and crushed red pepper for about a minute over medium heat. Add the onions and stir fry for about 5 minutes. Add the peppers and carrots and cashew, stir fry for 3-5 minutes. Add the zucchini, salt, and lemon juice. Stir fry until zucchini is of desired doneness.

This dish had much more heat to it because the crushed peppers were initially fried in the oil. The heat even permeated the cashews. The bell peppers added a slight sweetness. This was a great way to serve vegetables. I could probably even add boiled chicken strips to this dish and serve with rice (another future blog entry!).

I will admit that this was a very conservative foray into Indian cuisine, but both dishes were very tasty and did not take all day to prepare. To wash down our meal we drank a 2002 Virginia Norton Locksley Reserve from Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, VA (~$18). A very fruity dry red that served us well during our meal. Norton is a grape native to North America. Before Prohibition, Virginia produced Claret made from this grape that was very popular. Alas, all of the Norton vines were pulled up in the 1920’s and the wine-making industry died in Virginia until the latter part of the 20th century. The Norton grape was “rediscovered” growing in Missouri (which also makes Norton wines). It has now been reintroduced to the Virginia wine industry. While Norton is not a vinifera variety, it produces a decent wine about which Virginia can boast.


mallika said...

I love the sound of these recipes. But reading through them, I noticed you have touched on something really important about Indian cooking -
that it doesn't have to take all day to prepare. And there's more to Indian cooking than curry.

Even then, the boiling chicken before adding them is a bit fiddly. I'd just chuck them in anyway. It will take just as long for the chicken to cook and give them a bit more time to soak up the masalas. Wonder how that would turn out... I think I need to test it for myself...

pjpink said...

Hi Mallika,

Thanks for the comment. I plan on trying more Indian recipes. My first meal was very yummy!