Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Indian Wednesday #7: Beef and bread.

Beef stewed with coconut
Steamed rice

This recipe caught my eye because its basic ingredients, beef, potato, and coconut milk, reminded me of one of my favorite Thai dishes, massaman curry. This is logical, since massaman is said to be influenced by the food of the Indian subcontinent. Also, Monica Bhide's recipe comes with some options, and since I feel I am starting to really learn something about Indian cooking from this experience, the opportunity to freelance a little appealed.

The recipe called for 'chuck'. I must admit I don't really know what that is, and it's certainly not available by that name in France, so I substituted bourginon the cut of meat prepared for Julia Child's now legendary signature dish. Also, because Monica Bhide said that you could add vegetables such as winter squash or turnips to the dish, I reached for my old favorite, the parsnip. Finally, there was a suggestion to use bread to eat the sauce, the perfect opportunity to try out something that's been on my culinary wish list for ages: laccha paratha.

I will always remember the first time I tried paratha, ordered by a knowledgable friend in an Indian restaurant in London. Until that point I had thought that the naan was the be all and end all of Indian breads. But then a round, buttery flake bread arrived which stole my heart and relegated the hitherto delicious naans to the second division. I was in love with paratha.

Until now, I had always assumed that paratha was going to be difficult to make and require special equipment, so imagine my joy when, scouring YouTube, I discovered a host of videos showing young Indian ladies whipping up a batch in a frying pan. A quick trip to the Rue de la Faubourg St Denis and I was possession of a bag of atta, a gluten-rich durum wheat flour which blended with all purpose flour, milk, and a little salt and sugar forms the paratha dough.

The YouTube ladies make rolling and folding the dough into mini Belgian buns look easy. This is essential for producing the paratha's characteristic flaky spiral and in fact was as easy as the ladies made it look. These spirals are then flattened into thin disks, facilitated by the high gluten content of the atta which are then fried in a pan, painted with ghee, and ready before you can say 'hey paratha!' I was extremely impressed with the results, and I encourage you all to go on your own YouTube odyssey to find the recipe.

Back to the stew. Again, like most of the recipes in Modern Spice, the flavors were derived from a few well-combined ingredients, effectively de-mystifying Indian cuisine, and oh what a combination. The coconut milk gently infused all of the ingredients with creamy nuttiness, unifying them, but then retired into the background and let the real stars, chillis, ground coriander, and the extraordinary curry leaves, shine. I am planning a curry leaf special entry to this blog, so I won't dwell on them now, and anyway, I've kept you long enough. Get out there and cook curry; after all, it's Indian Wednesday.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Indian Wednesday #6: Favorite fish

Monica's Tomato and Coconut Fish Curry
Steamed Basmati Rice

According to Modern Spice, this is Monica Bhide's signature dish. The book recounts an anecdote in which her father tells her it is his favorite dish too, going on to explain how he makes it in his own way, leaving out or substituting the majority of ingredients for some reason. I must confess, that like Monica's father, I too left out one ingredient and substituted another: I didn't have any black mustard seeds and I couldn't find catfish here in France so I used fillet of whiting instead. But apart from that, I followed the instructions in the recipe to the letter from the measurements to the timings. The result? This is now my favorite dish too.

Before you get too excited, I must confess that I noticed a few weeks ago that I have a problem with favorites. Since I moved to France, I am also working my way through the wonderful world of French cheese (I should start a blog) and realized that every time I try a new cheese that I like, it becomes my favorite—until I try a new one. Last week, the Coriander-and-fennel crusted lamb chops from Modern Spice were my favorite and these have now been supplanted by the Tomato and coconut fish curry. What will it be next week? I guess what I am saying is take my superlative with a pinch of cumin seeds but as a sign that this dish, like the rest of the recipes I have tried from Modern Spice so far, is truly very, very good. No, not good: exceptional. 

Cooking my way through Modern Spice was always supposed to be an education in Indian cuisine as much as an enjoyable culinary journey, and indeed, I have learned something new every week. One of things this dish taught me most about is the taste of turmeric. Until now, I had thought that it was really a colorant, a cheaper version of saffron, turning every thing it touches bright yellow whether you want it to or not. However, in this dish, the turmeric not only lends an exquisite end-of-the-day color as you can see from the pictures, but also combined with the coconut milk, a sort of egg-custard like flavor that pairs exceptionally with the fish. It is that, combined with the heat of bi-color chiles and intensely aromatic curry leaves that makes this dish exceptional.

On the subject of curry leaves, I have discovered that it is they that give all the Indian food stores that I have ever been in the same distinctive smell. It's a smell I was very familiar with in my youth, living as a student in Rusholme, Manchester, one of the largest Indian quarters in the UK. It's a smell I immediately recognized as I entered the first grocery store on the Rue de la Faubourg St. Denis here in Paris, an equally large and exciting Indian quarter. And it's a smell that I recognized when I opened the plastic bag of fresh curry leaves I brought home a couple of weeks ago, finally discovering this extraordinary plant. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Indian Wednesday #5: Spring lamb

Coriander-and-fennel crusted lamb chops
Bombay potatoes
Indian salad

One of the things I love about many of the recipes in Modern Spice by Monica Bhide, is that they are so darn easy. This week's dish, coriander-and-fennel crusted lamb chops is no exception; but what a lesson in how simple can be effective.

Essentially a marinade for lamb chops, Monica's experience and encyclopedic knowledge of spice combine to perfectly accentuate the natural ovine flavours with a hint of heat in the background to remind you of its Indian origins. And the cooking instructions are spot on for baby pink meat, loaded with juice like a plump grapefruit.

I used two different types of chop: one on the bone and the other with the bone removed, rolled and tied into the form of a steak. Both worked equally well and formed a classy contrast with each other when served together.

As side dishes, I prepared classic Bombay potatoes cut through with smooth cilantro leaves, and a salad of tomato, onion, and cucumber dressed with buttery sesame oil and tangy lime. All the flavours of spring on a plate.

If I didn't have so many more recipes to try, I'd be cooking this again next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Well, lamb isn't in season for that long.