Book makes Indian cooking accessible

BOOKMARK

Authentic balanced with the practical

January 08, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The prospect of cooking Indian can easily overwhelm, considering the array of unfamiliar ingredients, techniques and seasoning combinations. How many other culinary styles, for instance, commonly call for making your own spice blends?

Not to worry, says Neelam Batra, who has written 1,000 Indian Recipes (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2002, $35), a big, substantial book that takes account of the fact that her native country's cuisine has a reputation for complexity.

"What simplifies matters is knowing some basic techniques and having some preparations and ingredients pre-made," writes Batra, also the author of The Indian Vegetarian and Chilis to Chutneys. "If you understand these basic techniques and preparations, know your way around a kitchen, and allow yourself time for chores such as chopping, grinding, roasting, and the like, you can cook Indian food."

Batra balances the pursuit of authenticity and the practicalities of the American kitchen, steering away from specialized equipment and traditional methods of hand-grinding, sun-drying and tandoor cooking.

The 690-page book has no pictures, and Batra spares atmospheric prose. She gets to nuts and bolts, of which there are more than enough. Batra offers a primer on menu planning, basic techniques such as dry-roasting spices and roasting vegetables. Along with instructions for Indian clarified butter, or ghee, and Indian cheese, or paneer, there are directions for 27 different spice blends called masalas - 20 in paste form and the rest dry masalas - and seven curry powders.

Yes, there's a glossary - how else to navigate this fragrant universe of biryanis, dum-pukhts, kormas, pakoras? For the record, the word curry - derived from Tamil for sauce - has two meanings. It's both a dish cooked in a sauce and a spice powder made from five to 15 spices, not one spice, although there are such things in Indian cooking as curry leaves.

Well, there are such things if you can find them, and according to one Indian grocer on South Broadway in Baltimore, this is next to impossible in these parts. Fortunately, curry leaves don't turn up in many recipes. Neither do silver leaves, which are also quite tough to find.

Surely some of the challenge of this cooking style is finding the ingredients. Batra understands this, and not only recommends her reader to local specialty grocers in their area, but also lists mail-order and Internet sources.

If discovery is one joy of cooking, this book provides a good helping. This much is clear once you have soaked saffron in milk, or prepared an edible incense of pan-roasted spices.

Basmati Pilaf With Caramelized Onions and Broccoli

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 1/2 cups basmati rice, rinsed

2 3/4 cups water

4 tablespoons peanut oil or melted ghee

6 to 8 green cardamom pods, crushed lightly to break the skin

one 1-inch stick cinnamon

6 to 8 whole cloves

3 to 4 small onions, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon yellow or black mustard seeds

1 small head broccoli, cut into 1/2 -inch florets, stems cut into 1/4 - inch pieces

In a medium bowl, soak the rice in the water, about 30 minutes. Heat 3 tablespoons oil (or ghee) in a medium nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat and cook the cardamom pods, cinnamon and cloves, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add the onions and cook, stirring as needed, until golden, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the sugar over the onions, reduce the heat to medium-low, and continue to cook until they are dark brown. With a slotted spatula, remove half the onions, drain them on paper towels (to make them crisp), and reserve for garnish.

To the pan, add the rice, the water it was soaking in, and the salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan (partially at first until the foam subsides, and then snugly), and cook until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Do not stir the rice while it is cooking. Remove from the heat and allow the rice to rest about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and add the cumin and mustard seeds; they should splutter upon contact with the hot oil, so lower the heat and cover the pan until the spluttering subsides. Quickly add the broccoli florets and stir about 2 minutes. Transfer the rice to a serving platter and lightly mix in the broccoli, with some of it visible as a garnish, top with the reserved onions, and serve.

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