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Bring on the spice: Cooking Indian food doesn’t have to be daunting

By Amanda Cushman, News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)
The spices you will need to begin your Indian cooking journey are; coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds (yellow and black), cinnamon, fennel, ginger, red chili, cardamom, clove and fenugreek leaves. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

By Amanda Cushman

While spending two months in India in the early 80s, I fell in love with the cuisine, the culture and the people.

From my travels, India has remained an impressive memory, one that gets reignited every time I smell the aroma of coriander, cumin, curry leaves, turmeric and garam masala in my kitchen.

So Ive been cooking food from Northern and Southern India for more than 15 years, and Ive mastered dishes that my friends and family love.

Learning to cook food from India can be a daunting task, and the term "Indian food" is rather misused. The country is huge and, like Italy and France, has regional specialties. Each region has its specific dishes that originate from history, location, culture and tradition.

Many years ago, I was fortunate to study Indian cooking in New York City with a master chef named Julie Sahni and have used her teachings in my cooking classes and dinner parties. It would take a few lifetimes to learn the cuisine from each region. But its rewarding to try your hand at making this glorious food with only a few basic tips on ingredients.

The most important ingredients are the spice mixes that are unique to each dish. They impart flavor, heat and diversity from one dish to another. Each region has its own popular spice blend, known as masala blends, which include blends like garam masala.

To begin your Indian cooking journey, you should have these spices: coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds (yellow and black), cinnamon, fennel, ginger, red chili, cardamom, clove and fenugreek leaves.

Ingredients such as legumes, vegetables, grains, dairy and fruits are staples in the Indian diet. Dishes also rely heavily on a variety of lentils, so you most likely will have dal a side dish of cooked spiced legumes at every table, as well as flat and puffed breads known as naan, roti, chapati and paratha.

Ghee is a popular fat for cooking in India, but not all regions use it. Instead, they might use vegetable, peanut or mustard oil. Ghee, which is easy to make, is clarified butter, which is made by melting a pound of unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted completely, skim off the foamy top and then carefully pour out the golden clear liquid to leave behind the milk solids in the bottom of the pan. You will lose about a third of the butter during the process. Transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Ive included two recipes for popular spice blends: curry and garam masala. It is best to make your spice blends from scratch and store them in small jars or masala boxes, which are available at most Indian markets or online. I use an electric coffee grinder for my toasted spices. Afterward, clean it for coffee use by grinding a small piece of bread to remove the spice flavor.

Vegetarians fare well with Indian food, as many regions rely heavily on legumes, grains and vegetables. Here are recipes to get you started with the basics.

MODERATE

Chana Masala

This beloved Northern Indian side dish can be part of a vegetarian meal paired with rice, dal and a vegetable for a complete meal. All the spices are available at the Indian market or your local spice store.

For the spice mix:

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick

3 peppercorns

1 Indian bay leaf

2 black cardamom

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 dry red chiles

teaspoon Indian chili powder

teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon mango powder

teaspoon garam masala (see recipe)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons ghee

1 medium onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, minced

2 serrano or other hot chile peppers, seeded, minced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2/3 cup water

2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 lime, juiced

cup cilantro leaves

Toast the first eight spices in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds. Cool slightly and then grind in a spice grinder. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the chili powder, turmeric, mango powder and garam masala.

Heat the ghee in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chiles and saute until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the spice mixture. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes and add the tomatoes and water. Scrape up all the bits in the bottom of the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the chickpeas and salt and simmer uncovered over low heat until slightly thickened, about 35 to 40 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add the lime juice and garnish with the cilantro before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: TNS

EASY

Basmati Rice Pilaf With Raisins and Cashews

Rice is served with every meal in India, and there are many different varieties. Most Indian recipes use white rice, but you can chose brown if you prefer. If you prefer brown rice, remember to increase the cooking time by double.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or coconut oil

1 small onion, diced

teaspoon saffron threads

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup basmati rice

2 cups vegetable or chicken broth

teaspoon sea salt

Fresh pepper, to taste

cup raisins

3 tablespoons toasted cashews or almonds, roughly chopped

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and saute the onion until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the saffron, cinnamon and rice and stir until lightly coated with the oil. Add the broth, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until all liquid is absorbed, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Add the raisins, nuts and scallions and remove from the heat and allow to sit covered for 10 minutes before serving. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: TNS

MODERATE

Red Lentil Dal With Spice-Infused Ghee

There are many varieties of dal and a number of lentils to choose from: green, black, red, yellow and cracked lentils, known as urad dal. I love the color of red lentils and often use them as the base of a lentil soup.

2 tablespoons ghee

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon cumin

onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 cups red lentils, rinsed

5 cups water

For the Spice-Infused Ghee:

2 tablespoons ghee

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 cups chopped plum tomatoes

cup chopped cilantro

Heat 2 tablespoons ghee in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the mustard seeds, turmeric and cumin. Cook for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and salt and saute until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the lentils and 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. If the lentils are getting too thick, add more water. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

Make the Spice-Infused Ghee: Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons ghee. Saute the cumin seeds, garlic, ginger and garam masala until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Cook another 2 minutes and turn off the heat.

Transfer the dal to a serving dish and pour the Spice-Infused Ghee on top. Garnish with the cilantro and serve.

Serves 6.

Source: TNS

EASY

Garam Masala

1 tablespoons cumin seeds

1 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon peppercorns

1 teaspoons cardamom seeds

teaspoon cloves

1 inches cinnamon stick, broken into bits

2 Indian bay leaves, broken into bits

teaspoon grated nutmeg

Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add all the spices except the nutmeg. Toast, shaking the pan until the spices release their aroma and turn dark brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg, then cool completely. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder and store in an airtight jar.

Makes cup.

Source: TNS

EASY

Curry Powder

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

2 teaspoons peppercorns

6 whole cloves

2 tablespoons turmeric

2 teaspoons Indian chili powder

Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add all the spices except the turmeric and chili powder. Toast, shaking the pan until the spices release their aroma and turn dark brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the turmeric and chili powder, then cool completely. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder and store in an airtight jar.

Makes cup.

Source: TNS