Friday, January 4, 2013

Week 49: A Journey to India

Indian cuisine offers a diverse presentation of dishes defined by their ingredients, cooking methods, religious connections, and regional origins.  While the original Indian diet dating back over five thousand years was simple, the introduction of spices by traveling salesmen and invading countries spurred the evolution of the more complex dishes we recognize as Indian cuisine today.  The introduction of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam influenced Indians’ culinary choices, as well.  With such a breadth of options, I found myself struggling to create menus for this week’s project, so I selected dishes that were outside the norm of my normal Indian dining regimen.  

Vegetarian Dinner
Because vegetarianism is a common way of life for many in India, its cuisine offers numerous options for hosting a legitimate vegetarian meal.  By that, I mean a menu with thoughtful dishes presented in a manner that celebrates their ingredients, instead of dishes obviously conceived as meat dishes with substitutions.  After planning the menu, I invited over a few friends (one, a vegetarian) for a fully vegetarian Indian feast.

homemade paneer
On the morning of our dinner, I began my day by making homemade paneer, which sounds impressive, but it’s really quite simple.  I boiled whole milk, added lemon juice, turned down the heat, simmered it for about a minute while the curds and whey separated, strained it into cheesecloth, rinsed off the lemon juice with some water, and let it drain for about five minutes.  Then, I shaped it into a round and set a heavy pot on it so that it could mold into a block of cheese.  When I came home from work that night, the cheese was perfect and ready to be cut into cubes for palak paneer.

papadum and tomato raita
My friends arrived for dinner bearing gifts.  Katrina brought a nice bottle of wine.  Debra brought an amazing homemade tomato raita, and Sweet Pea brought frozen papadums that can be microwaved to a perfect crisp.  (I didn’t even know that these little frozen gems existed, and I must say that I was skeptical until we popped them in the microwave.  Wow!  I couldn’t believe my eyes or my taste buds!)  Never a host to say “let’s save these for later,” we immediately began our meal with their gifts!  When we finished our papadums and raita, I served palak paneer, chana masala, and basmati rice that I lightly infused with cinnamon and cloves. 

palak paneer
Having ordered palak paneer and saag paneer many times in Indian restaurants, I actually never knew the difference in these dishes.  After a little research, I discovered that palak paneer is only made with spinach, but saag paneer may be made with any greens and is commonly made with a combination of greens, such as spinach and fenugreek greens.  With this information, I confidently set out to make palak paneer.  I couldn’t find one single recipe that seemed to include all of the necessary elements, so I combined a few different recipes to achieve the right combination of flavors.  For the sauce, I used fresh garlic, fresh ginger, ground coriander, ground red pepper, finely ground cashews and poppy seeds, onions, diced tomatoes, turmeric, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves.  When the sauce was simmering, I added the blanched spinach, and just before serving, I stirred in the cubes of homemade paneer and cooked it long enough to heat through the cheese.  Without question, this was the best palak (or saag) paneer I have ever tasted.  I used a full tablespoon of cayenne pepper, so it definitely had heat, but beyond that, I could taste the difference in using fresh spinach, garlic, and ginger.  Also, the consistency of the paneer was nice, firm yet creamy.  Sometimes in restaurants, I find it a bit rubbery or so creamy that it is falling apart and spreading into the sauce.  All in all, a stellar dish that I will make again.

chana masala
Chana masala is a popular chickpea dish in Northern India with a sour bite.  The chickpeas are stewed in a tomato-based sauce seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and curry powder or garam masala.  According to my research, the most authentic way to achieve the sour flavor is the addition of amchoor powder (dried unripe mango powder), but most accounts note that additional fresh lemon juice can achieve the same flavor profile.  I’m not sure what the correct flavor balance should be, but I added lemon juice and tasted the dish until I felt like the flavors were balanced.  I liked the dish, and it was especially nice alongside the very spicy palak paneer.

Friday Night Dinner for Two

chicken biryani
With so many options, I struggled to determine which dishes I should make for Friday night’s dinner.  In all honesty, I wanted to make our favorite Indian dishes (korma, tikka masala, and kadhai), but adhering to my project rules, I resisted.  Truthfully, I’ve made them all at home previously.  So, I chose to make Chicken Biryani.  While it’s one of the most famous Indian dishes around, I had never tried it.  I always thought it seemed so boring compared to the spicy curries and grilled dishes on Indian menus.  Then, I read Mark Bittman’s glowing description of it in his The Best Recipes in the World cookbook, and I decided to give it a try.  It was the most delicious version of “chicken and rice” that I have ever tasted.  In addition to achieving the most perfectly moist chicken I could imagine, the recipe’s use of onion, saffron, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger creates an alluring aroma.  The dish is topped with almonds fried in butter which adds a rich, crunchy, nutty element to the dish and elevates it to another plane.  (Topping dishes with fried almonds is a trick I learned from my Palestinian friend Lana who fries slivered almonds in ghee and tops almost all of her dishes with them.)  This is truly a perfect dish for a night when comfort food is in order.  Bittman’s recipe is absolutely foolproof and delicious.

vankaya nuvvula masala
Fortunately, I made a large pot of chicken biryani, because the Vankaya Nuvvula Masala, eggplants stewed in sesame sauce, proved to be a complete failure.  In defense of the dish, I attribute the failure to my inability to select properly sized eggplants and the amount of time required to properly cook through large eggplants.  In other words, my eggplants needed to be smaller, or I needed to cook my large ones for much longer.  Despite the toughness of the eggplant, the flavor of the sauce was delicious and complex as it included onion, chilies, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cayenne powder, coriander, and fenugreek.  For the purposes of the project, the sauce certainly offered a new flavor profile that I had not previously experienced in Indian food.  I don’t normally consider sesame seeds as representative of Indian flavors, but this dish surely changed that perspective.

With more available time, I could have cooked a different Indian meal every night this week, and still, I would’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities.  That’s one of the most appealing things about Indian food, yet I tend to always order the same dishes when I visit an Indian restaurant.  This week’s dishes inspired me to try new ones in an effort to experience the full scope of flavor profiles that Indian cuisine offers.  Fortunately, we have a great little Indian restaurant in our neighborhood for these future endeavors.

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