Asian food has always been my favorite family of cuisines. Maybe it’s because the only significant length of time I spent abroad was in Japan. Maybe it’s the direct contrast to the classic flavors I ate as a child. Maybe its just the bright but rich flavors, the beautiful presentations and the facility with vegetarian cooking. And there are just so many ways to manipulate a carbohydrate: Soba and Udon noodles, chow fun, pad see ew, pineapple fried rice and vegetable biryani just to name a few. Delicious.
Of course, there’s an immense amount of variation amongst the various cuisines: like a parent forced to choose their favorite child, my first inclination is to say that each and every one is special and delicious. Though if I really think about it (maybe like a parent as well?) I can make a choice pretty easily: I just love Indian food. It has to be the curry: there’s nothing quite like it. I love the way my kitchen smells after I finish making a saag paneer or masala (of course, when it still smells like that two or three days later, then we have some trouble).
Indian has problems, however; in the heat of August, it’s almost impossible to imagine whipping up a curry: cream, cheese, nuts, potatoes? Way too rich for my already overheated blood. But at the same time, I’m sick of stuffing vegetables with other vegetables. There’s something spiritual about cooking what you absolutely love to cook, not just what you like to cook. But how to make something that won’t turn my dinner table into a sweat lodge?
Curried Spinach and Peppers
Let’s be honest, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is my bible. Pretty safe guess to go with that one at all times.
1 pound of spinach, washed, stemmed and chopped
5 dried red chilies
1 cup coconut milk
5 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press
1/2 cup corn oil
3 cups cooked chickpeas (I added this to the recipe; I used dried beans, which I had cooked and frozen earlier)
1 tomato, chopped (another personal addition)
1-2 tsp of curry, chaat masala, garam masala or sambar powder
Put the oil in a pan, then add the chilies and garlic, and cook until they sizzle (only about 30 seconds). Add the spinach, curry powder and coconut milk. Turn down the heat, and cook slowly for 20-30 minutes until the the liquid is absorbed.
I stirred my additions in at about the 15 minute mark, and I had to turn up the heat a little to boil off the chickpea cooking liquid.
Indian Style Rice Salad
2 cups brown basmati rice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped scallion
1/2 cup coconut milk, or more as needed
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon curry powder, or to taste
1 jalapeño or other hot fresh chili, stemmed, seeded and minced, or to taste, optional
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Bittman includes potatoes, peas and cauliflower in his recipe, but I just kept this to the basics, to serve as a cold base for my curry. To prepare: cook the rice as you would pasta, in a couple pints of water – it will take about 30-35 minutes to get the rice tender. Drain the rice, then rinse in cold water and combine with the pepper and scallions. While the rice sits, combine the coconut milk, vinegar, pepper and curry powder in a bowl and whisk together: you should get a creamy emulsion in about a minute (alternatively for the lazy, throw it all in a blender and pulse for 30 seconds). Dress the rice with the coconut milk dressing and let the salad sit a room temperature.
The question I was trying to answer when I started this was: “can you make light, summery Indian food?” The answer: sort of. This was certainly a lot lighter than most of the Indian I’ve made in the past. The rice salad’s dominant flavor is curry, but the rice vinegar and raw jalapenos give it a brightness that you don’t often see in that kind of dish. Similarly, the spinach takes on the texture of a creamed spinach, but it is considerably easier to handle than a traditional creamed spinach; also, the chickpeas add heft without the density of potatoes or lentils, and the acidity of the tomato is a nice touch.
But is this the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten in my life? Probably not. Bittman makes a casserole of spinach, chickpeas, fresh paneer cheese and tomato sauce which blows this out of the water. I’ve also made a similar dish with soaked and toasted cashews replacing the chickpeas which is also fantastic. I’m willing to give Bittman a pass on the rice salad; after all, I pared it down to its barest of bones, and maybe there is something lost when you take out the fixings. And don’t get me wrong, the curry was fragrant and the dish presents quite nicely. But I think that great Indian food will have to wait until the weather once again turns cooler.
Anyway, if I always said nice things about my food, you people would never keep following me.