Sunday, November 11, 2007

India Mela

(Mela means festival in Hindi.)

This project reminded me why I cook. Cooking makes me come alive. Food is a central part of our humanity, endlessly diverse, complex and fulfilling. The passion is easy to lose sometimes, when I get bogged down with the mundanity of feeding and sink into old ruts. A few days ago I found myself sitting in the kitchen thinking that there was nothing that I actually wanted to cook. I approached this project with some trepidation, thinking that after all the work I was sure to be sick of cooking for quite some time.

While I adore old recipes and traditions, I never want to stop exploring, challenging and pushing myself into new territories. Today that territory was North India. Trying my hand at the exotic new spices, ingredients and techniques was a fascinating adventure that rekindled my hunger for culinary artistry.

Our church has a relationship with several organizations in North India, where we plan to establish some long-term missionaries - which may include Stephen and me. Today, the last day of our missions conference, we had an Indian luncheon after the service. The menu featured homemade Raita (cucumber yogurt), Chicken Tikka Masala, Chana (chickpeas), Yellow Dal (lentils), Mixed Vegetable Curry, Basmati rice and Naan. The church community really came together over this meal; many contributed food and volunteered to help.

My contribution was the Vegetable Curry, which I adapted from a recipe on Sailu's Kitchen, a beautiful Indian food blog. We had about two hundred guests, and of the main dishes, mine was the only one that ran out, so I should have made half again as much. Quantity is really hard to gauge just by looking at a recipe, especially a scaled one, but that's where experience comes in!

Preparing a recipe for two hundred is just about as complicated as preparing it for two. Besides chopping and cooking time, there are just as many steps and ingredients. This one was very passive - I let the wok and the oven do all the work. I did most of the cooking in two cafeteria-sized chafing dishes from the church and ended up with almost no cleanup!

North Indian Mixed Vegetable Curry

Ghee (clarified butter), as needed (I used 1 1/2 cups for the whole recipe)

Two softball-sized onions, finely diced
1 1/2 cups cashew butter
1 1/2 cups tomato paste
1 Tablespoon garam masala

1/4 cup cumin
38 cloves
50 cardamom pods
8 3-inch cinnamon sticks

12 lbs. yellow onions, diced
19 green chilis, finely diced
3/4 cup ginger-garlic paste (found in Indian markets)
1/4 cup Kashmiri red chili powder (I fell in love with this spice!)
2 Tablespoons cumin
3 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes, strained

4 heads cauliflower, diced
7 lbs. carrots, peeled and diced
10 lbs. potatoes, Russet and Yukon Gold, diced
4 lbs. frozen petite peas
4 lbs. frozen green beans

1 quart whole yogurt

Begin by making the brown onion paste. Caramelize the two softball-sized onions with some ghee and grind them to a paste in a food processor. Mix with the cashew butter, tomato paste and garam masala and refrigerate until the end.
On the stovetop, melt some ghee with the cumin, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Let them cook for a while, then strain the scented oil into a bowl. Use this oil to saute the onions and green chilis in batches until transparent. To each batch, when the onions are done, add some ginger-garlic paste, red chili powder, and cumin and saute for another minute. When all of the batches are done, add the tomatoes. This onion-tomato sauce should be overly spicy, since the flavor will be diluted over all the other vegetables.
While the onions are cooking, dice and begin oven-roasting the cauliflower, carrots and potatoes. I sat in the living room watching movies at this stage; it was a very relaxing way to spend Saturday afternoon. Toss the vegetable dice with ghee and salt, and spread them in a single layer to roast at 350 F. When they're all done, add the frozen peas, beans, onion-tomato sauce, and the brown onion paste mixture from the refrigerator. Toss thoroughly to coat. The frozen vegetables will have cooled everything down quickly, so it can either be refrigerated overnight or brought back to serving temperature at this point. Just before serving, fold in the yogurt. If heated, the yogurt will curdle.

Do check out the original recipe from Sailu's Kitchen. She has some authentic subtleties that I skipped, such as a homemade cashew paste made with melon and poppy seeds. She also recommends blanching and sauteing instead of oven-roasting the vegetables, but I didn't want to be standing over the stove all day.

All told, this was a very therapeutic recipe. Perhaps there's something in those spices... at any rate, all I know is I can't wait to get cooking again.

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