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Spices, Scotland, Shiloh… and cheese. February 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. For Valentine’s Day, our friend Ben surprised me with (surprise!) cookbooks. If, like me, you love cooking, I thought you’d enjoy hearing about them.

But first, a brief digression about the other thing OFB produced as a Valentine’s Day present: A bottle of my favorite liqueur, Drambuie. Drambuie is a Scottish liqueur that was apparently developed in 1745 for Bonnie Prince Charlie and which has been enjoyed by countless lesser beings, such as yours truly, ever since. (Their classic motto is “The spirit lives on.”) But when our friend Ben triumphantly produced the bottle, I thought he’d bought a knock-off by mistake. That was definitely not the classic Drambuie bottle, brown glass with a shape as ancient and dramatic as its origins. This was a plain old clear liquor bottle that could have held vodka or rum. Worse, until I picked it up, I thought it was, gasp, plastic. How the mighty had fallen! Tragically, it proved to be the real thing. The bottle had been redesigned, so the company claimed, to “reveal the unique golden liqueur” inside. Ha! How about, the bottle has been redesigned so it’s cheaper to produce and more of them will fit onto a store shelf. Give me back my brown bottle!!!

While I’m already off-topic, let me explain how our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh fits in to all this. (Fortunately, Drambuie has nothing to do with it.) Our friend Ben had somehow managed to find a Valentine’s Day card with a photo of a black German shepherd on it. At first I thought that, despite his true Luddite incapacity around anything technological, including cameras, OFB had somehow managed to Photoshop it. I mean, how likely is it that a greeting card company would decide that any sort of German shepherd was a good subject for a Valentine, much less a black German shepherd? But checking it out, it was a real honest-to-God Valentine from Shoebox/Hallmark. Kudos to OFB for pulling that off!

Now, back to the books. Back in the fall, I’d read a review of a new cookbook called Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009). It sounded like a must-get. Having long since abandoned any pretense of subtlety where our friend Ben is concerned, I clipped the review, handed it to him, and said “Next time you’re stumped for a present for me, I’d really like this.” At the time, I was hoping it might make an appearance for my birthday or Christmas, but it didn’t, and I eventually forgot about it. Meanwhile, poor OFB was carting the review around in his book bag all this time. And for Valentine’s Day, he not only got me Modern Spice, but Ms. Bhide’s earlier book The Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Publishing, 2004). And, for something completely different, The New American Cheese: Profiles of America’s Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking with Cheese (Laura Werlin, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000).

The Everything Indian Cookbook is aimed at the beginner who’s just sticking a toe into the enticing, exotic ocean of Indian cuisine. It features 300 recipes, including (to quote from the front cover) Minty Potatoes in Yogurt Sauce, Malabari Coconut Rice, Spinach Lamb Curry, Sizzling Tandoori Chicken, and Almond-Coated Naan Bread.

But what I found most valuable about it were the pointers throughout the book to help the novice feel at ease with Indian cooking, from chapters on “Basics of Indian Cooking” (including techniques and a basic Indian spice pantry) and “Basic Recipes,” including the classic spice mixtures garam masala, tandoori masala, and chaat masala, plus homemade ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (Indian cheese), to tips and definitions scattered throughout. Tips include everything from “Deep-Frying Made Easy” to how to find and use dried fenugreek leaves and the proper techniques for cooking with cumin seeds. (“Cumin is never used raw.”)

The Everything Indian Cookbook is, admittedly, not something it would have occurred to me to buy. But I’ve really been enjoying paging through it. It has no photos and is not vegetarian—two drawbacks in my book—but it has tons of veggie-friendly recipes and others that can easily be adapted, and I’ve already learned plenty of things I hadn’t picked up from more beautiful and sophisticated Indian cookbooks. (My friend Huma, for instance, has told me a hundred times that the Indian dish I make with spinach and paneer is not saag paneer, but it wasn’t until I got this book that I saw that the dish with spinach is called paalak paneer, and that saag paneer uses mustard greens instead of spinach.) Highly recommended if you’d like to expand your culinary horizons.

Modern Spice is a whole different animal. To quote Ms. Bhide: “This book takes Indian cooking and translates it for our generation—this book embraces the intense, spicy Indian flavors but is not stuck on an artificial standard of authenticity that no longer exists even in India.”

As an intuitive cook, I completely approve of this approach, as long as it’s plainly stated upfront. To say that India, with all its diversity, has a “standard” cuisine is like saying that there is one style of cooking that characterizes my native South. Anyone who’s tasted the signature dishes of, just skimming, South Carolina, the Florida Keys, my home state of Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Texas will find little similarity between them, and little do they know how many variations play out in every region. Think about the endless variations of a single food such as barbecue or chili or even coleslaw (that’s just “slaw” to us Southerners) and you’ve said it all. Ms. Bhide’s point is well taken.

Modern Spice is full of useful advice, instructions, and tips, many gleaned from Ms. Bhide’s years teaching cooking classes and coming to understand what American amateur cooks need to learn. But it has a sophistication and range that picks up where a basic Indian cookbook leaves off. You won’t, as Ms. Bhide notes, find a recipe for mango lassi here. Nor will you find saag paneer or even paalak paneer. Paneer, yes, used in recipes such as Paneer and Wild Mushroom Pilaf, Paneer and Fig Pizza, Anaheim Peppers with Mint-Cilantro Chutney and Paneer, Papad Stuffed with Crab and Paneer. (As you can see, this book isn’t vegetarian, either, but again, has many veggie-friendly recipes.) I was deeply disappointed by the lack of photos—the book has only eight, stuffed awkwardly in the middle—but was charmed by the author’s essays, interspersed throughout, about her upbringing and food adventures. If you already know and love “classical” Indian cuisine in its many variations, Modern Spice is a must-buy.

Now let’s leave the world of spices and talk about cheese. As an avid cheese-eater, I have many books on cheese and cheese-making. I fantasize about learning to make my own cheeses. I also avidly read articles about American cheesemakers and fantasize about eating their luscious boutique creations. (Our friend Ben and I will very occasionally splurge on a handmade cheese by a local artisan, but normally fine cheeses are, like fine wines, alas, far beyond our budget.)

So The New American Cheese was the ultimate fantasy. This book won one of The IACP Cookbook Awards, and it’s easy to see why. It is photo-rich and breathtakingly beautiful. It tells the story of the evolution of cheese in this country and profiles 80 of the foremost American artisanal cheesemakers at the time of its publication.

And the recipes are to die for: Bruschetta with Fig Puree and Blue Cheese; Teleme, Squash, and Onion Galette; Mozzarella and Roasted Mushroom Panini; Mixed Beet and Crottin Salad with Walnut Oil and Lemon; Dill-Lemon Greek Salad; Blood Orange, Fennel, and Feta Salad; Pistachio-Coated Goat Cheese Rounds on Mixed Greens with Nut Oil Vinaigrette; Pizza with Blue Cheese, Butternut Squash, and Fried Sage Leaves; Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Fontina, and Aged Cheese; Green Garlic Risotto with Cauliflower, Pancetta, and Fromage Blanc; Lemon Parmesan Risotto with Asparagus; and Cheese Enchiladas with Lime-Tomatillo Sauce. There are also tantalizing meat-based main courses, like Grilled Pork Chops with Cheddar-Corn Spoonbread and Apple-Sage Chutney; sides like Fennel, Apple, and Celery Root Gratin and Lemony Artichokes with Feta and Oregano; and dessert classics like (of course) cheesecake and apple-Cheddar pie, as well as more innovative desserts.

One thing (among many) that charmed me about The New American Cheese was a delightful chapter devoted to upgrades on classic American comfort foods, from French onion soup, mac’n’cheese, Cobb salad, and fondue to Welsh rarebit, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, classic Iceberg lettuce with Maytag blue cheese dressing, and shepherd’s pie. This cookbook is a must-have for anyone’s shelf, for the recipes alone but especially if you want to really learn about cheese and cheesemaking.

In case you’re wondering why I’m torturing you with the concept of all these recipes and not giving you any, every one of these books threatens dire consequences if any of their content is reproduced in any way. Sob! You’re on your own, I’m afraid. I can’t afford artisanal cheeses now, and would really rather not contemplate the prospect of eating “Government Cheese” behind bars. (Just ask Martha.) But perhaps I’ll write a post soon that provides you with my own distinctive recipe for saag—I mean, paalak—paneer…

          ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

Indian cookbook roundup. July 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. Summer means plenty of fresh vegetables, and I know of no cuisine that can do more with vegetables than the many cuisines of India. So I was thrilled to see an article in my local paper this morning announcing the publication of a new Indian cookbook, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen, by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009, $25). Needless to say, it’s now on the Silence Birthday List. (Are you reading this, Ben?!!)

This of course sent me running to my own cookbook collection to see what I have on the shelves. My own Indian cookbook collection is eccentric and not necessarily representative, since it’s simply the cookbooks (used and new) I’ve been unable to resist over the years, or have been given by far better cooks than I am. But I love them all, so I thought I’d share them with you in case you’d like to check them out and maybe start an Indian cookbook collection of your own! Note that I’m omitting my many cookbooks that include sections of Indian recipes. The ones in this list are all India, all the time:

Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Yamuna Devi, Bala Books, 1987, $29.95 hardcover). This massive tome does for Indian cooking what Mastering the Art of French Cooking did for French cuisine: It makes it accessible to American cooks. With more than 500 recipes, it’s really the Bible of Indian cooking. But it’s illustrated, so there aren’t any mouthwatering photos to inspire you, and its scope is so vast you might find it intimidating if you’re not already into Indian cooking. Rest assured, though, the tone is friendly, upbeat, and helpful.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking (Barron’s, 1995, $25 hardcover). This is my friend Huma’s favorite Indian cookbook, and she gave me a copy so I could enjoy preparing some of her favorite dishes as well. I grew up cooking with Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, which appeared in the glorious era of The Vegetarian Epicure, Laurel’s Kitchen, and The Moosewood Cookbook, but was unaware of this (definitely not vegetarian!) cookbook until Huma gave it to me. Luscious color photos and illustrations inspire and instruct, and with 130 recipes, the scope is a bit more manageable if you find huge cookbooks intimidating.

Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine from South India (Chandra Padmanabhan, Periplus, 1994, $21.95 softcover). This is actually my favorite Indian cookbook. The photos of everything look so good, you just want to cry because you’re not eating it all right now. The regional focus allows the author to present all sorts of variations on each dish, and to give a whole chapter to the delicious Indian snacks eaten at tiffin (sort of Indian tea time). If only we had street vendors selling them here!!! The language can be a bit confusing, as when I read one recipe that called for 4-5 drumsticks (Hey! I thought this was a vegetarian cookbook, and last time I looked, chickens weren’t vegetables!), only to find out from a glossary in back that drumsticks are a type of Indian squash, or when the author uses “curd” to refer to yogurt rather than cottage cheese or tofu (bean curd). But these are minor inconveniences in a book that’s this mouthwatering.

Good Cooking from India (Shahnaz Mehta with Joan Korenblit, Rodale Press, 1981, $14.95 hardcover).  This long out-of-print book may still be lurking in used bookstores near you or on Amazon. It’s classic granola-era Rodale, with no salt or sugar and only whole grains, such as brown rice, something I have never seen eaten or served by Indians anywhere, so its authenticity leaves a bit to be desired. But Rodale was early to see the health benefits of eating Indian-style, so if your family’s health matters more to you than recreating authentic recipes, and if you’d like to introduce your family to Indian cuisine without overpowering them with hot spices, this might be a good place to start. Not vegetarian.

Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Sumana Ray, The Apple Press, 1984, $15 hardcover). The over-the-top subtitle of this book, “The New All-Colour Guide to Delicious and Exotic Vegetarian Dishes of the Mysterious East,” is so screamingly bad that it might keep you from buying this out-of-print classic, even if you could find it. But don’t be put off. The beauty of this book is in the simplicity of its recipes. If you’d like to try Indian cuisine without spending hours at the stove, this is the book. It’s British, and has a few puzzlers for us Americans (calling paneer, the Indian cheese, cottage cheese, when it has no curds, for example), but mercifully it gives measurements in ounces and tablespoons, etc., as well as grams, so even if you’re metrically illiterate like me you can make the recipes with confidence.

Royal Indian Cookery: A Taste of Palace Life (Manju Shivraj Singh, McGraw-Hill, 1987, $18.95 hardcover). At the opposite end of the spectrum is another out-of-print book. You definitely get the idea that you’re not in Kansas anymore when you see “Foreword by Her Highness the Raj Mata of Jaipur,” and sure enough, the author grew up in the City Palace of Jaipur and participated in her royal family’s lavish lifestyle. This book celebrates the cuisine of Jaipur and Rajasthan at its finest, and it’s a delight to read. You’ll find recipes here that I, at least, have never seen elsewhere, such as Wild Boar or Pork Pickle (“In Rajasthan, this pickle would be made in the winter after a boar hunt”) and Partridge Curry. The description of the Wedding Feast alone is worth the price of the book!

Well, it wouldn’t be fair to tempt you with all these Indian delights and not give you even one recipe, would it? Some Indian curry mixtures and garam masalas can be quite complex. But this classic Bengali spice mix, called Panch Puran, is incredibly easy, since you’re just combining equal parts of whole spices.  It’s traditionally used to flavor vegetable dishes, and it’s heated in the butter, ghee (clarified butter), or oil before adding the vegetables so the spices can release their flavor.

To make Panch Puran, mix equal parts whole seeds of cumin, black mustardseed, fennel, fenugreek, and nigella (that’s love-in-a-mist for all you gardeners). You may have to find an Indian or Asian market or go online to get nigella seeds for cooking instead of planting, and black mustardseed can be a bit challenging, too, though I can find it locally at Echo Hill, a whole-foods bulk market. I use black mustardseeds all the time, so I wouldn’t want to skip them, but if you can’t find nigella seed and aren’t tied to tradition, you could always replace it with a fifth spice of your choosing, such as ground cardamom or turmeric. I say, experiment and find what you (and your family) like!

And please, if you have favorite Indian cookbooks, let me know what they are. There’s always more room on my birthday list!

           ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

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