Sunday, August 31, 2014

Cooking at Wilch Hall, #1: Indian vegetables

"Dad, where did you get the 'Hall' from, it's just Wilch."

So says Harry, who is living this year in Wilch, a residence at Cornell College (Iowa, not Ithaca).  I prefer to call it Wilch Hall, which reminds me of Wolf Hall and has a nice Tudor or Renaissance ring to it.  So, I will refer to it as Wilch Hall in this and future postings.

He will be sharing the apartment with his friends Brennen, Margo, Tommy and Trevor.  Each floor is a separate apartment, including a living room and a kitchen.  The kitchen is a tremendous perk for students who have been eating dorm food for three years, and Harry is very keen at the prospect of not having to eat dinner in Commons. I am concerned that he and his apartment-mates not waste this golden opportunity to eat well and to acquire cooking skills that will last them a lifetime  and help them to survive, even in the most poorly paying professions.

The recipes that will be included in this and other posts are about method, so ingredients and quantities vary widely.  They are also all derivative.  They are digested and synthesized from cookbooks, friends, cooking shows and long years experience.  They are the kinds of things that we make at home, and are intended to give the Wilch Hall-ites some guidance if they get tired of treyfe hot dogs or pasta with jarred tomato sauce.

We will start at the beginning with a sabzi, or Indian vegetable dish.  This first post is a generic method that has infinite variations and can be used with a wide variety of vegetables and spices.  Like in college, the purpose is not to give your the answers, but to help you make intelligent choices and come to defensible results based upon available resources (be they data or ingredients).   In separate posts, I will give a recipe for green beans that Harry made under my loose guidance, a generic dal (legume) recipe, and an overview of other Indian vegetable dishes on this blog along with some links.  I have also given some links to other recipes in the vegetable prep section below.

Basic method for Indian vegetables (Sabzi)

This can be used for most any vegetable. The quantities given are for about 1.5-2 pounds of vegetable. Tips for prepping a few different vegetables will come at the end, as well as suggestions for some classic combos. The process is divided between three phases:  cooking the masala, or spicing, at the beginning, cooking the vegetable itself, and then the final seasoning.  Although you have to perform all three phases to get a good outcome (or at least the first two), you can pick and choose between the steps and ingredients in each phase.    Read through the entire recipe and have all your ingredients handy since things can move quickly and burn, especially when making the masala.

Make the masala

You have to heat the oil and cook some type of seasoning in it.  You can follow all of the steps below, or just choose one or two.  It is usually best to do at least one spice and one batch of seasoning vegetables.  This all  may look scary but it really isn't:

  • Heat oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick.  Between 1 and 3 tablespoons of fat should be sufficient.  The more the tastier,  because of the way the salivary glands respond to fat and because the flavors of many spices are fat-soluble.  The choice of oil can result in subtle differences in the result.  Make sure that the oil is suitable for cooking at high temperatures, which olive oil, butter, and roasted sesame oil are not. You can use a generic vegetable oil (canola, corn, safflower, soy or "vegetable") or a different oil for a special regional flavor.  Sesame oil  (Indian sesame oil is lightly roasted, richer than the health food oil but much lighter than East Asian dark brown sesame oil which should not be used) is used in the South, as is coconut oil.  Mustard seed oil gives a special Bengali flavor, but I don't expect you to be able to find this so easily.  If you can find it, heat it until almost smoking and then let it cook a bit before cooking.  Ghee (Indian-style clarified butter) is common in Northern India.  Though I don't expect you to make it yourself, you can sometimes find it in supermarkets and even at Trader Joe's.
  • When the oil is hot, add approximately 1/2 - 1 teaspoon whole spice seeds.  Most popular are cumin, mustard seeds, and fennel.  A classic seasoning combo is cumin and mustard seeds, adding ginger and green chili later. You can also use fenugreek (use very sparingly, 5 or so seeds should be enough),  kalonji (black onion seed) or ajwain (a small seed that looks like celery seed but tastes like thyme), though these are more esoteric.  Cook until they turn a few shades darker, but be careful not to burn them.  The mustard seeds will pop.  When they sit on the stove they look a bit like cockroach eggs, which may amuse guests.  You probably want to clean your stove before any parents visit.
  • Add a whole dried red chili if you want.  Let it darken slightly.
  • If you have them, you can add 5-20 fresh curry leaves, but you probably won't have them.
  • You can add a pinch of sugar if you want your dish a little sweet (Bengali's like it that way.).  Let sizzle a few seconds.
  • Add 1/4 teaspoon turmeric now.  You can also add it later , but adding it early helps to take the raw edge off its flavor.  Let sizzle a few seconds.
  • Add some chopped onion.  It can be  few tablespoons to about a cup.  You can use red, white or yellow (i.e. plain old) onions, shallots, or scallions (white part only).  Sprinkle with salt, about 1/2 teaspoon, and cook.  You can cook these from any stage until merely soft (a few minutes) to brown at the edges and starting to crisp (a lot of seconds). 
  • Add ginger (1 inch, peeled and hand chopped or grated), garlic (between 1 and 7 cloves, sliced or chopped) and green chili  (1 or 2, seed if you want it milder, and chop).  Cook for a minute or two,  You should notice a change in the aroma from raw to cooked. 
  • If Ingrid and Elijah loan you their mini-processor, or if you happen to acquire one by other means, make a paste of 1 chopped onion, 1 inch chopped ginger, and as much smashed garlic as you would like.  Pour this into the pan and cook down on high heat for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. The aroma will change.  Although you would generally use this paste without the other onion, garlic and ginger steps (you can add a green chili before the paste), adding this paste to some browned onions will result in a very special dish.)
  • Turn the heat down and add ground spices, especially turmeric (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon if you haven't used it yet), cumin (1 teaspoon, a little goes a long way especially if you have used whole seeds) and coriander (1 to 3 teaspoons).  A teaspoon of ground mustard can also be nice, especially with green beans. Use some sugar if you do this. Cook slowly for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly so the spices don't burn),  until the spices lose their raw aroma.
  • Add tomato if you want.  This can be 1 tablespoon of tomato paste, a chopped fresh tomato or two (a nice Mexican trick it to cut a slice off the top of a large tomato and grate it straight into the pan -- the skin will stay behind) or between 1/4 cup and a cup of chopped canned tomatoes.  Cook these about 5 minutes more.  Unless you use the paste, turn the heat up again.

Cook the vegetable

  • Add  prepared vegetable.
  • Sprinkle with more salt if you like things salty.
  • Cook in the masala for a few minutes, stirring, on medium to high.
  • If you want, add water or a little coconut milk, about 1/2 cup. Bring to a simmer.
  • Cook until done to taste.  Times vary.  You can cover it and lower the heat, which requires less attention, or leave it uncovered.  Uncovered requires attention and more frequent stirring, but can result in a nice pan-roasted flavor.

Final seasoning

  • Although you should always taste and correct for salt, the final seasoning process is like making the masala. You can do one, some or all of the following:
  • Taste for salt and add more if needed.
  • Add a teaspoon or so of lemon or lime juice.  (Tamarind is another souring agent but probably not readily available.)
  • Stir in some chopped fresh cilantro or another suitable herb (which may on rare occasion be dill or mint).
  • Sprinkle with a finishing spice: garam masala or ground, roasted cumin seed.
  • Sprinkle a bit more fresh herb on the top.

Enjoy!!!

Vegetable prep and some classic combos:

This list is not exhaustive, and is just to get you started.

Beets:  Peel beets and dice. Clean your hands with lemon juice or someone may mistake you for an axe murderer.   Great with whole cumin seed, chopped onion, garlic and ginger, ground coriander, tomatoes, and fresh mint.    Also nice simply cooked with mustard seed, ginger, garlic and chili.  Raw beets can take a while to cook.  You can also get a large beet, peel and grate it, and stir fry it with mustard seeds and other seasoning, which will go very quickly. If you want, you can use precooked beets, especially those sold vacuum packed in the supermarkets.

Cabbage:  simple is better.  Clean the cabbage by removing the outer leaves.  Shred. Try it with whole cumin, a bit of turmeric and onion or with mustard seed, ginger, chili and turmeric.  Cook until just done or until well brown.

Carrots:  Peel and cut into 1/2 inch pieces.  Use whole cumin or a combo of cumin and mustard seed with ginger and chili, and a bit of turmeric.  Lemon juice and dill at the end.  Or you can do carrots and peas, using whole cumin seed and adding frozen peas at the end (cook until they defrost).  Substitute coriander for the dill.

Cauliflower:  this is a real classic.  I particularly like it with roasted cauliflower. Two of my favorites are cauliflower with mushrooms and tomatoes and cauliflower with eggs.  Clean the cauliflower by washing it, cutting off any brown spots, removing the leaves and core and separating into florets.  Dont' throw out the core or leaves, which are good in the pot.  The ribs of the leaves are particularly succulent. Just trim off the hard parts of the core and cut it up into 1/2 inch pieces.

Eggplant:  Cut in cubes, and if you want roast it first.  Toss in oil and roast in a 425 oven for about 20 minutes.  Then make with either mustard or cumin seeds, onion/garlic/ginger, and tomato.  Fresh coriander at the end.  This is also very good with fennel seed.

Green beans:  recipe to follow soon, but these are great from the simplest (just mustard seed, ginger/green chili, lemon juice and fresh coriander at the end to a very elaborate dish.  Excellent with a sprinkling of garam masala or roasted cumin.

Peas:  Frozen is generally ok.  You can defrost by running in a colander under cold water, or just adding them frozen to a dish with other vegetables.  Peas love cumin and onion.  They also cook quickly.

Potatoes:  You can wash and boil or bake potatoes until just tender and then peel and finish using seasoning above cook, or use whole very small potatoes, scrubbed, and cook them raw, whole or halved with whole spice seeds.   Combo of fennel, mustard and cumin is great, with a bit of ginger and chili if you want.  Cook covered until potatoes are tender.  Fresh coriander almost a must.

Winter squash:  Peel and dice about 1/2 inch cubes.  Cook covered with mustard seed, turmeric, green chili and add fresh coriander at the end.  Also good with some grated coconut (reconstitute dried coconut by soaking in boiling water about 15 minutes, and then just add it toward the end).  If you are going to use kalonji, now is the time.

Zucchini or other summer squash:  It can be a good idea to soak these since the can be sandy.  They will go with almost any combination that you want to try, simple or elaborate.  Try to brown in the skillet if you can.


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