Indian Food from California

caindianFor some mysterious reason I associate Sukkot with Indian food. There is something autumnal about Indian food, and I do appreciate the freedom to be able to heat up saucy food, unlike on Shabbat. Thus, in this what-we-ate-in-the sukkah post, we once again examine Indian food. Having previously looked at Indian cookbooks from Michigan, we now look at two Indian cookbooks from California. One is a lavish self-published book, the other a restaurant cookbook.

entI became aware of Komali Nunna’s cookbook, Entertaining From an Ethnic Indian Kitchen from my brother, who had come across this cookbook at a book fair, bought it, and was happy with the recipes that he tried. Komali, along with her photographer and designers, has produced a rather too beautiful coffee table cookbook that just happens to have excellent recipes. The book is a menu type cookbook, with themed menus (“Barbeque Party” or “Moghul Banquet”), regional menus, menus for Indian festivals, and menus for American holidays. This is not my favorite cookbook format. In addition to the food photographs, this book has lots of Bon Appétit-style pictures of affluent Southern Californians enjoying themselves at Komali’s entertainment events. Here at Cookbook Cornucopia, we are much scruffier than Komali’s guests, so trying to reproduce one of her parties would have been a lost cause right from the start. But I was very successful in picking recipes from different menus that appealed to me.

beetcucI usually do not find many salads of the type that I like to put out before the hot food in Indian cookbooks, but the “Beets-Cucumber Salad” (page 290) from Komali’s book is exactly the sort of salad recipe that I like. For this salad, beets and cucumber are combined with a honey-mint-ginger dressing. I used yellow beets instead of red beets since I like the taste better, and was making the salad in advance and did not want the beets to turn everything pink. For the mint, I used the peppermint outside our back door instead of the more common spearmint. The peppermint had a very interesting numbing effect at first that faded after a day or two.

badpickleThe one recipe failure from this book was “Pickled Cauliflower, Turnips, and Carrots” (page 213). The vegetables are blanched and, when cool, added to a pickling liquid of oil, vinegar, spices, sugar, ginger, and garlic. Komali says to use malt vinegar or apple cider vinegar. I used the malt vinegar, which I think was the first problem with this recipe; I do not think that the malt vinegar contributed a very good taste. The second problem was the half cup of coarsely ground black mustard seeds. Although black mustard seeds are possible my very favorite Indian flavoring, a half cup was just too much. Furthermore, the coarse grind was not a good idea. With a different vinegar and fewer mustard seeds, though, this might have made a good pickle. The turnips were a surprisingly successful ingredient.

palakPalak Paneer is one of the great dishes of the world. I like it any which way, from the frozen Amy’s version, to the best Indian restaurant versions. The only way I don’t like this dish is with tofu substituting for the paneer, a problem if I ever decide to embrace veganism. Still, some versions are better than others, and in my search for recipes to make myself, I never found one that was quite perfect until I came across Komali Nunna’s version (page 214). Her spices are just right, and the spinach sauce is faintly flavored with tomato. I am inclined to deviate from her recipe in the amount of paneer: I love fried paneer, so I usually use more. [Go to the recipe.]

chickpeass“Khatte Chole (Sour Chickpea Curry)” (page 100) is as good an Indian chickpea dish as any. Komali makes this curry with canned chickpeas, and I was feeling lazy, so I did too (although I expect that this dish would have been even better had I cooked my own chickpeas). All the usual suspects appear in the ingredient lineup: onion, ginger, chilies, cumin, coriander, tamarind, tomatoes,… . I just served these chickpeas with rice, but according to Komali, some type of bread would be more appropriate.

peppersssThe “Stuffed Bell Peppers” (page 278) are stuffed with a mashed potato mixture and topped with buttered bread crumbs. The amount of stuffing is not enough for four peppers, let alone the six peppers called for in the recipe. The bread crumbs were an annoying distraction. Despite these complaints, I like the idea of using potatoes as a pepper stuffer, and the potatoes themselves were very nicely flavored.

inddatec“Khajoor Guja” (page 200) is a wonderful recipe for fried date pastries. The crust is a simple flour, salt, oil, and water mixture, and the filling combines dates with coconut, pistachios, sugar, and cardamom. I used only half the sugar called for in the recipe, and the filling was still more than sweet enough. These cookies were completely irresistible when fresh, and even after a couple of days when the crust was no longer crisp, they were still very good. Let us note that these cookies are completely vegan.

ajWithout going to my shelves to count, I feel that I have dozens of cookbooks just like Lachu Moorjani’s Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India (although in fact there might be fewer than half a dozen): Indian cookbooks with color illustrations on thick paper with restaurant recipes. The main reason I pulled out this particular book is that the author’s restaurant is in California; Berkeley, to be precise. Also, before becoming a restaurant owner, Lachu was an engineer. I like to think that coming to the world of food as a second career is a good sign, indicating a true love of food (although I suppose in some cases, the first career just didn’t work out). The book is a menu cookbook, with menus from different regions of India. This I totally ignored, and just picked the recipes that looked appealing. This is not a vegetarian cookbook, but is certainly vegetarian friendly. I liked everything I made from this cookbook, and would like to explore it further (but first I have to get through a few more of the other Indian cookbooks).

caulbeanThe phrase “mixed vegetables” bring to mind flavorless frozen combinations of corn, beans, and peas that I would put on the table when first learning to cook. But “Sabzi Rangarang (Mixed Vegetables in Spicy Sauce)” (page 89) is completely different. The vegetables are not that unusual: potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and green bean; but combined with the sauce form a dish unknown to the tables of my childhood.

urudI have a good recipe for urud dal in a cream sauce, but Lachu’s “Urid Daal” (page 201) seemed like another good treatment for urud dal, this time vegan. The flavors are not complicated: cumin, tumeric, tomato, tamarind, and cilantro, and so this is a very easy dish to prepare. But the taste is great, and I did not miss the cream at all.

indeggp“Baingam Bharta (Pureed Roasted Eggplant with Onions, Tomatoes and Spices)” (page 50) was just wonderful, although I think I would have liked it a little less spicy hot. Although definitely Indian, this eggplant dish is quite similar to some Middle Eastern eggplant dishes. Lachu recommends cooking the eggplants on top of a gas stove, directly over burners; I expect an outdoor grill would also work to impart the desired smoky flavor to the eggplant. I took the alternate path and cooked the eggplant in a hot oven, forgoing the smoky flavor, but making less of a mess, and without having to supervise constantly the process.

indfcocochutney“Masala Vadai (spicy Lentil Cakes with Coconut Chutney)” (page 154) are best described as Indian falafel. Like the best falafel, these are made by first soaking dried beans (urud, toor, and chana dal, instead of chickpeas), then grinding with onions and other flavorings (with these, cilantro, hot green pepper, and ginger), and finally frying in hot oil. When fresh, these were delicious, especially with the coconut chutney, and were still really good a few days later. The main ingredients of the chutney are coconut, cilantro, and tamarind paste. I had to add more water to the chutney in order to get a consistency that I liked. [Go to the recipe.]

peanutchutneyWhen I was collecting recipes to make from this cookbook, I was not sure that I would like the coconut chutney, and so also made “Peanut Mint Cilantro Chutney” (page 165). In addition to the named ingredients, this chutney has tomatoes, tamarind, and hot peppers. This was a much more liquid chutney than the coconut chutney. Both were excellent, non-sweet condiments, but I think I actually liked the coconut chutney a little more.


Palak Paneer

Adapted from Komali Nunna, Entertaining From an Ethnic Indian Kitchen

1 pound paneer
1 pound spinach
¼ cup oil
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 red onion, chopped
1 inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon amchoor
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1½ teaspoons salt
8 ounces tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon milk
¼ teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Cut the paneer into cubes and fry in some ghee until golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Thoroughly rinse the spinach and remove any thick stems. Roughly chop. You may also use packaged baby spinach, and the sauce will still be great, just not as great.

Heat the oil in a large skillet, possibly the same skillet in which you fried the paneer, after wiping it out. Add the bay leaf and cumin seeds. When the seeds begin to brown, add the onion, ginger, and garlic. Cook and stir for a few minutes, then add the cayenne, tumeric, amchoor, and fennel seeds. Cook and stir for a few more minutes, then add the salt and tomatoes. Cook for about 4 minutes, then add the spinach and cook another 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and whiz this spinach mixture in the food processor. You don’t want complete smoothness, so stop whizzing while there is still some texture left. Ypou could also use an immersion blender. Return the spinach to the skillet and add the paneer. Stir in the sugar and milk. Taste to see if you want more salt.

Heat a spoonful of ghee in a small pan and add the garam masala to the ghee. Pour this over the spinach. Stir in the cilantro.


Indian Falafel with Coconut Chutney

Adapted from Lachu Moorjani, Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India

½ cup toor dal
½ cup urud dal
½ cup chana dal
4½ cups water
2 serrano chilies, seeded and chopped
1 onion, chopped
½ bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1½ teaspoons salt
2 inch piece ginger, chopped

¼ cup urud dal
½ cup unsweetened coconut
2 serrano chilies, seeded and chopped
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1 inch piece ginger, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons tamarind paste
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon asafoetida

Pick over the dal, then soak it in the water for 2 to 4 hours. Drain, then put in the food processor with all the rest of the ingredients except for the oil. Pulse until the beans are ground into a paste.Heat an inch or so of oil in a pan. Form the bean paste into walnut sized balls and fry until golden on all sides. The oil should be hot enough so that the ball start to sizzle when you put them in the oil. Drain on paper towels. Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to do this in batches, adding more oil if necessary.

To make the chutney, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a small pan, add the urud dal, and cook until the dal is golden. Add the dal, coconut, chilies, cilantro, ginger, salt, and tamarind paste to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until puréed. Add water to achieve your desired consistency.

Heat a little bit of oil in the small pan. When hot, add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and asafoetida. When the mustard seeds pop, add to the chutney.

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