Friday, February 1, 2008

South Indian Feast

If there's any food I love nearly as much as fresh cows' milk, it's coconut milk, and there's plenty to be found in great South Indian cooking. We had a little mela at our place the other night, with the dishes almost exclusively drawn from Ruta Kahate's cookbook 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Her recipes are disarmingly simple and approachable. She "interprets" them for American kitchens, suggesting canola oil instead of ghee, cayenne pepper instead of Kashmiri chilli powder. I changed them back.

The menu was as follows:
Cauliflower in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Butternut Squash and Green Bean Curry
Black-Eyed Peas in a Goan Curry
Meatballs in (not-so-) Spicy Malabari Curry
Cucumber-Cilantro Yogurt Raita
Whole Wheat Naan, from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads
Steamed Brown Basmati

This meal was an adventure. I'm very proud of it still. From slapping naan dough onto the baking stone in my 500-degree oven to symphonizing flavors in smooth curries, the preparation techniques were as diverse as the meal itself.

I decided to try the cauliflower in spicy tomato sauce because it's so much like a curried cauliflower my mom makes. This dish came out the spiciest, even though I only used one serrano chili with the seeds scraped out. It brought intense flavor and a light counterbalance to the creamy curries.

The butternut squash and green beans taught me that fresh green beans taste so much different from the frozen ones that the latter should not rightly be called by the same name. This dish is so simple it doesn't even need a recipe. Peel (with a vegetable peeler, not a paring knife!) and dice a butternut squash and steam it until tender (about 10 minutes). Trim and slice a pound of green beans and steam them until tender as well (6 minutes). In the meantime, heat a cup of coconut milk with salt to taste. If you like, add a minced serrano chile or two. I left them out, but I can't remember if it was deliberate. Chop three tablespoons of cashews and toast them in a dry skillet. Toss the squash cubes and green beans into a serving dish, pour the coconut milk over, and garnish with the cashews. Stir carefully if at all to avoid mashing the squash. This combination is utterly delicious.

The Black-eyed Peas in Goan Curry was a little bland, probably because I doubled the volume of beans in the recipe but kept the same amount of spices. Silly. Here's the recipe with the right amount of beans:

1 cup dried black-eyed peas, cooked (or two 15-oz cans, drained)
2 Tbs ghee (or oil)
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 clove garlic, grated
1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne (or Kashmiri Chilli powder)
1/4 cup diced tomato
1 cup water
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp sugar
1 cup canned coconut milk
2 Tbs minced cilantro leaves
1 Tbs lemon juice

I used a slow-cooker to cook the peas ahead of time, only I used a whole pound, as mentioned above. Once they're cooked, drain and set aside.
Heat the ghee or oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat and saute the onion until brown. Add the coriander, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilli powder or cayenne, and cumin. Stir for two minutes, then add the tomato and stir 2 minutes more. Add the drained peas and mix well. Pour in the water, add salt and sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer about 20 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, uncover and simmer another 10 minutes. I cooked this one in the morning and let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator all day. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro and lemon juice and simmer one minute longer.

The other curry, the Malabari meatballs curry, had fantastic flavor and plenty of extra gravy to use on other dishes afterwards. It really woke up the leftover lentil soup!

For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef or lamb
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 green serrano chile, minced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
3/4 tsp salt

Mix gently, shape into golf-ball-sized meatballs, and set aside.

2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 Tbs ghee (or oil)
4 shallots, sliced thinly
5 cloves garlic, grated
1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp Kashmiri chilli or cayenne
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 14-oz can coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 green serrano chile, seeded and minced
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs minced cilantro leaves
1 tsp apple cider vinegar

See any common ingredients? After making a few curries, you may notice that the technique is similar from one to the next.
Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, then cool and grind in a spice (coffee) mill. I toast them together for simplicity; most cookbooks say to toast them separately. Considering their different sizes, it makes sense that one would burn sooner.
Melt the ghee in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the shallots, garlic and ginger, stirring constantly until the shallots turn golden brown. Add the coriander, cumin, cayenne, and tomato paste. Simmer 5 minutes.
Add the coconut milk, water, chile, and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and gently add the meatballs. Simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, about 8 minutes. Just before serving, gently stir in the cilantro and vinegar. Simmer one minute more and serve.

Raita, for Indian food lovers, is the blessed respite and counterpoint to the very spicy foods at the table. I based mine on a recipe from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, which simply combined whole yogurt, a diced cucumber, a handful of cilantro, and salt.

The Naan was a very hands-on recipe requiring a slow-fermented yogurt dough, several rollings-out and restings of said dough, a beastly hot oven and an afternoon of sweat and burns. All told it was a delightful experience. An essential part of the naan flavor and texture is a quick swab of melted butter just after cooking/before eating (preferably the same time).

All told, this spread did take all day to put together. But when cooking is your choice of entertainment comparable to someone else's reading books or gardening, I consider that a day well-spent. I come away with a new appreciation for Indian culture, a better mastery of culinary techniques I haven't thought of, and a great meal to share with friends.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to leave a note to say that I miss you. Hope that you're well!!

ahen said...

Love Indian food and your presentation. Glad that you had a good day doing this and that SLY is enjoying it !

Abigail said...

I only discovered your blog today -just wanted to say thank you, your entries are so interesting and I've learned a lot. Such a pity there have been no recent entries. Do hope all is well and you'll be back soon. I'll keep checking back.

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