13 September 2008

The Fish Sauce Postulate

The Fish Sauce Postulate:
If a cook is adventurous, the contents of his fridge and pantry will always be crowded with arcane, unused ingredients unless he has,
a.) a good recipe that uses each ingredient, and
b.) a means for reminding himself to cook that recipe regularly.

Call it, "a use for everything and everything in use."

I've recently embarked upon a quest to have a clear use for everything I have in my kitchen.  So far, it's yielding good results.  I try a lot of different recipes and am always experimenting, so there's a constant influx of interesting ingredients.  The fresh ones that don't get used get chucked pretty quickly, but the long-lived ingredients just end up taking up space.  For instance, I picked up some tamarind paste at Dual Quality Products to try out this recipe.  The results where not awesome, but I am totally down with cooking eggplant in the microwave and have done so to good effect since, just not south Indian eggplant.  But I still have that tamarind paste in the fridge.  And unless I get a recipe that uses tamarind paste, it's going to be there until it goes off (a year from now!) and gets thrown out.

So the pantry list is now more of a whole-house food inventory.  I've added all of these recipes to Bubbalup, my organizational tool (forthcoming soon, I promise), and it's working just brilliantly.  I keep black sesame seeds on hand, and every now and then zakkokumai cha zuke will bubble up on my list, ensuring that the sesame seeds have a chance of some day not being in my pantry.

It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Of course, I may be totally insane.

08 September 2008

Chettinad Chicken/Durban Curry Hybrid

I've developed a one-pot Chettinad Chicken recipe that's informed by a more Western style of cooking.

My starting points were here and here.

A lot of Indian recipes involve toasting spices and/or frying onions in oil or ghee at the end.  This gets stirred into the stewed portion of the dish and served immediately.  It's very similar to the Latin cooking method of soffrito, in which a mixture of onions, peppers, garlic and spices gets fried in oil at the end of a cooking process and added into, for instance, boiled black beans.  

There are two problems with this for how I cook:

1.) It creates another dirty pan.
2.) I burn things way too easily when I do this.  

Toasting spices in hot oil and frying onions are fairly delicate operations and putting them at the end of the cooking process, when I'm concerned about getting to the table on time, boiling rice, etc, is just not feasible for me.  I need a bit more of a French-style layering approach, where the more labor-intensive portion is at the beginning, and I think I can do this without losing too much.  

Or maybe I just haven't had it explained to me why frying spices at the end is better than doing it at the beginning and having the flavors fully incorporated into the final dish.  We cook with leftovers in mind, and curry is almost always better the next day anyway, so I don't see a great deal of potential hazard in re-ordering the traditional recipes a bit.

One-pot Chettinad Chicken (or Tofu)

2 lbs fresh tomatoes

1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp poppy seed
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 green cardamom pods
3 cloves
1/2 a cinnamon stick (or 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon)
3 dried red chilis (available at Indian markets)
1 tsp salt

1 cup plain yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
Juice of 1 large lime
2 1/2 lbs chicken thighs, chopped into chunks OR packages firm tofu, chopped into chunks

3 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
1 large or 2 medium onions, sliced thinly
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (available at many Indian markets)
6 pods dried red chilis 
Fresh cilantro

Core tomatoes and score the bottom of each with an X.  Put in a large bowl and cover with boiling water for one minute.  Run cold water into the bowl until tomatoes are cool enough to handle.  Strip off skins, half tomatoes across the equator, and squeeze out seeds.  Chop tomatoes coarsely and set aside.

In a dry skillet combine the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, poppy seed, fennel seed, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Toast over medium heat until fragrant. The cumin seeds will darken first.  When they do so, take off heat and allow to cool.  Grind to a fine powder with a clean, spice-dedicated coffee grinder.

Combine spice mix in a non-reactive bowl with Aleppo pepper, yogurt, garlic, ginger, salt, lime juice, and chicken.  Marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours, covered.

Heat vegetable oil or ghee in a heavy, non-reactive pot off-heat.  Strip curry leaves into the oil, stir. Be careful, it will sputter.  When the sputtering subsides, add 6 pods dried red chilis, stir until they darken, about 30 seconds.  Then add onions.  Cook until translucent.

Add yogurt-spice-chicken/tofu mixture and tomatoes.  Bring to boil and simmer uncovered 30 minutes to reduce sauce.  If liquid is still thin, you can thicken with a corn starch slurry (2 parts cold water, 1 part corn starch) or by sprinkling on and stirring in Wondra flour.

Serve over basmati rice, garnished with fresh cilantro.  It's spicy, so you can try cooling it down with yogurt.  (We added Mrs. Ball's chutney from South Africa, which went very well.)

Serves 6-8.

06 September 2008

Planet Tomato

So, the very helpful counterman/cashier at my favorite Indian spice store, Dual Quality Products, will give you a quick verbal recipe for almost anything you buy in the store.  When I asked for his input on using shahi jeera, also known as black cumin (not to be confused with kalonji, or black onion seed), he gave me a quick recipe.  When he mentioned tomato, I asked if I could use canned.  "You can," he replied, "but fresh is better."  At the time I wondered what planet he was from, where you could shell out good money for delicious tomatoes only to turn around and skin and cook them.

Well, the name of the planet is late summer, and we've just crash-landed there.  Our farm share gave us nearly five pounds of beautiful tomatoes and four pints of delicious cherry tomatoes this week, and I'm sure another batch is coming next week.  Frankly, we're going to have to cook some of them.

Chettinad chicken.  I've been obsessed with doing this recipe since I figured out that it's a pretty close match to (and possibly the original source of) my beloved hometown curry (Durban, South Africa).  It has all the same spices, the tomatoes, the curry leaves that Durban curry has, but relies on your own spice mix rather than a Durban masala, and fresh tomatoes rather than tomato paste.  I discovered the dish at Chola, the stunningly good Indian place near us on the Upper East Side, and have been wanting to do it ever since.

I took the recipe from about.com and sort of simplified it for the way I cook, making it a one-pot meal.  I'll post the recipe later.  Here's  pic of these world-class tomatoes, skinned and seeded, and headed for glory.  The green is provided by curry leaves.

Welcome to Planet Tomato.