I think my love affair with Indian food started in college. My friends and I ate it about once a week, most commonly in the form of a Sunday morning buffet at our favorite restaurant following a late night out. We still laugh about how we would wait outside for the doors to open, and once at our table would order saag paneer in addition to the many all-you-can eat dishes on offer.
I had always wondered about how to recreate the complex flavors of Indian cuisine at home. In one of our few attempts many years ago, this involved grinding MANY different spices with a mortar and pestle. But when I recently took an Indian cooking class with my mom, I discovered another magic ingredient: ghee, or clarified butter. Our instructor had a large jar on hand and kept adding bright yellow scoops to seemingly all the dishes he was teaching us to make, resulting in an incredibly rich and creamy texture.
In our third (and most ambitious) night of world cooking, two of the three recipes called for the use of ghee as the cooking fat. Unfortunately, even a special trip to a market on Devon Avenue didn’t turn up the jarred version. I could have made my own by simmering unsalted butter until the moisture evaporates and the milk solids settle to the bottom, then spooning off the cooked butter…but I chickened out. The dishes were already complex enough without attempting a new technique, so I used the recommended substitution of vegetable oil. Next time!
All of last night’s recipes came from Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” This is a really well-written cookbook, and I especially like how Sahni provides ideas for accompaniments for each dish. Using these suggestions, we prepared masala jheengari (shrimp laced with mild spices) served with gobhi sabzi (glazed cauliflower with ginger) and hari chutney ka pullao (mint pilaf).
Sahni notes that masala jheengari is the most widely eaten shellfish dish in India, and I can see why. The shrimp are first heated through in turmeric-spiced water, and the cooking liquid then forms the base of the sumptuous sauce consisting of onions, cumin, ground coriander, paprika, yogurt, salt, green chilies, and ground roasted white poppy seeds (I couldn’t find these at the store, so substituted sesame). After reducing to a thick gravy, the shrimp are added back in along with a swirl of heavy cream and some chopped fresh cilantro. The mouth-watering intensity of the finished entree was perfectly complemented by the more subtle flavors of the stir-fried cauliflower and rice studded with potatoes and infused with a mint and coconut puree.
All in all (and despite a false start with the shrimp sauce in which I burned the onions and had to start over!), preparing this meal gave me more confidence with cooking Indian food, and I’m looking forward to creating some of our traditional take-out items at home (some favorites: butter chicken, samosas, malai kofta, and my old friend saag paneer!).
Because these recipes yielded a lot of food, we’ll be enjoying the leftovers tonight…but check back soon for our next international meal!