Thursday, April 16, 2009

1969: A Great Year, Especially for Cookbooks

When I first came back to Austin, I took a trip down south to Thrift Town. You can probably guess by the name, but it's a second hand shop, not trendy like vintage, but old romance novel and overalls like goodwill. There’s a small book section, and surprisingly, within that, there's a cookbook section. There I discovered a few books that were very old and pretty used, about cooking in different countries. I picked up The Cooking of India and it was love at first sight. Somewhere recently, between leaving Mexican food for a stint in Spain and warming to Spanish food, I learned about Indian food. It's actually what I ate on my last night in Barcelona, before returning to America. You may laugh, but in Texas, and most of America, we just don’t do Indian. I can only remember one time eating Indian out in Austin, and that was post cookbook purchase. My point is, I discovered the Time Life book series of Foods of the World and they have been my obsession ever since. The books are filled with so much information, not just recipes, and vivid, colorful photographs of the land and food and families cooking at home. Just looking at it, you know it's not a recently published book. No crazy gimmicky fonts or modern pictures of minimalist food; it's just India, how I’d like to see it, but fear that it's changed since these photos. And then I look, and yes, there's that little c with a circle around it and the year 1969, so things surely have gone a different way since then. And with all the added elements, the chapters on different regions, minorities in India, vegetarian cuisine, the index of Indian spices, and the bios on the writer and consultant (both from India), I get the feeling it's much more authentic than say, Jamie Oliver's Italy (no hard feelings...I own that book too, cook from it, and love it). But there's no doubt the writers in the Time Life series did their research and really knew their business back in 1969. The problem with my $3.24 book from Thrift Town is that there's an accompanying recipe booklet that has recipes not included in the actual book, and of course, this was not to be found at Thrift Town. I was still delighted with my purchase, and it had all the integral recipes as far as I could tell (mattar pannir, korma). You can order them from Amazon, but it costs more than my book. I decided to hold off, and I was on a mission to keep my eyes open at any chance I might have of encountering more books or recipe booklets. I got lucky one day in San Francisco and happened upon this little store called Cookin' that carries new and used cooking tools, supplies, cookware, books, just about anything relevant to the kitchen. And out of all the books, they had my Cooking of India recipe book for six dollars. Since then, I've seen different ones around new and used book stores, I'm tempted to get The Cooking of China, but first an Indian feast was in order.

I made a few different things, but right now I'm just going to give you the recipe for mattar pannir, probably hands down my favorite Indian dish. Another beauty of this book is it gives you recipes for every little thing, even ghee, which I was too lazy to make, so I bought it. But I did make my own garam masala, according to their recipe, and it was one of the most fragrant, strongest smells I’ve experienced in a while. And it makes a large portion so you have it around for the next time you want to whip up something. I'm going to steal a little bit of their text, giving more information on masalas because there's no use trying to put it into my own words.

"...most dishes are made with the elaborate combinations of freshly ground seasonings called masalas. Garam masala, for example, is a basic blend of dried spices to be used alone or with other seasonings. Other masalas, each devised to suit a particular dish, combine spices with herbs and may be ground with water, vinegar or another liquid to make a paste or 'wet masala.' In some cases nuts, coconut, even onion or garlic may be added. The flavors may be balanced to create a harmonious blend, or a single flavor may be emphasized as in a 'cardamom masala' or a 'coriander masala.' To release its flavors, a masala is usually cooked--separately or with other ingredients--before the appropriate meat, fish or other food is added to the pan."

Garam Masala

A few notes: Getting the seeds out of each cardamom pod takes a long time. Get a helper. I used a coffee grinder to blend everything and I thought it worked perfectly getting it to a fine powder.

To make 1 1/2 cups

5 three inch pieces cinnamon stick
1 cup whole cardamom pods, preferably green cardamoms
1/2 c whole cloves
1/2 c whole cumin seeds
1/2 c whole coriander seeds
1/2 c whole black peppercorns

Preheat the oven to 200F. Spread the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander and peppercorns in one layer in a large shallow roasting pan. Roast on bottom shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, stirring and turning the mixture two or three times with a large spoon. Do not let the spices brown.
Break open the cardamom pods between your fingers or place them one at a time on a flat surface and press down on the pod with the ball of your thumb to snap it open. Pull the pod away form the seeds inside and discard it. Set the seeds aside. Place the roasted cinnamon sticks between the two layers of a folded linen towel and pound them with a rolling pin or a kitchen mallet until they are finely crushed.
Combine the cardamom seeds, crushed cinnamon, cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns in a small pan or bowl and stir them together until they are well mixed. Grind spices a cup or so at a time by pouring them into the jar of an electric blender (or coffee grinder) and blending at high speed for 2 or 3 minutes, until they are completely pulverized and become a smooth powder. If the machine clogs and stops, turn it off, stir the spices once or twice, then continue blending. As each cupful of spices is ground, transfer it to a jar or bottle with a tightly fitting lid.
Garam masala may be stored at room temperature in an airtight container, and will retain its full flavor for 5 or 6 months.

Mattar Pannir

2 quarts whole milk
1/2 c unflavored yoghurt
2 Tbsp fresh strained lemon juice

5 Tbsp ghee
2 Tbsp scraped, finely chopped fresh ginger root
1 Tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 c finely chopped onions
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp ground hot red pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp garam masala
2 c finely chopped fresh tomatoes
1 1/2 c fresh green peas or 1 10-oz package frozen peas, defrosted
1 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro

Prepare the cheese in the following fashion: In a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan, bring the milk to a boil over high heat. As soon as the foam begins to rise, remove the pan from the heat and gently but thoroughly stir in the yoghurt and lemon juice. The curds will begin to solidify immediately and separate from the liquid whey. Pour the entire contents of the pan into a large sieve set over a bowl and lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth. Let the curds drain undisturbed until the cloth is cool enough to handle. Then wrap the cloth tightly around the curds and wring it vigorously to squeeze out all the excess liquid. Reserve 1 cup of the whey in the bowl and discard the rest. Place the cheese, still wrapped in cheesecloth, on a cutting board and set another board or large flat-bottomed skillet on top of it. Weight the top with canned foods, flatirons, heavy pots or the like, weighing in all about 15 pounds, and let it rest in this fashion at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours, or until the cheese is firm and compact. Unwrap the cheese, cut it into 1/2 inch cubes, cover with wax paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use. (There should be about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of cheese cubes.)
To prepare the cheese and peas, heat the ghee in a heavy 10 to 12-inch skillet until a drop of water flicked into it splutters instantly. Add the cheese cubes and fry them for 4 or 5 minutes, turning the cubes about gently but constantly with a slotted spoon until they are golden brown on all sides. As they brown, transfer the cubes of cheese to a plate.
Add the ginger and garlic to the ghee remaining in the skillet and, stirring constantly, fry for 30 seconds. Add the onions and salt and, stirring occasionally, continue to fry for 7 or 8 minutes, or until the onions are soft and golden brown. Watch carefully for any signs of burning and regulate the heat accordingly.
Stir in 1/4 cup of the whey, then add the turmeric, red pepper, ground coriander and garam masala. When they are well blended, stir in the remaining 3/4 cup whey and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peas and taste for seasoning. if the gravy has too acid a flavor add up to 1 teaspoon sugar.
Remove the cover and, stirring occasionally, cook for 3 minutes. Then add the cheese cubes and one tablespoon of the fresh coriander, cover the skillet tightly, and simmer over low heat for 10 to 20 minutes, or longer if you are using fresh peas and they are not yet tender.
To serve, transfer the entire contents of the pan to a heated bowl or deep platter and garnish the top with the remaining two tablespoons of chopped fresh coriander.