Ok, somewhere I found that putting tandoori spice on freshly cut cucumbers and a splash of rice vinegar is amazing. Well, I’m now addicted! I’ve tried garam masala, tandoori, and even a North African spice blend and they’re a great snack. It’s so fresh and healthy that I don’t feel guilty about eating a ton of them. Don’t ask me for a recipe because I try different things each time. Just cut up some cucumber in slices, sprinkle some tandoori on it and add enough rice vinegar to coat everything and enough extra so that the cucumber can absorb some and wait at least two hours. They get better the longer they sit. I even drank the juice! So good!
One of the things I will almost never purchase from the supermarket are ground spices. To me, whole spices are like gold. The smell of freshly toasted cumin or coriander is like an aphrodisiac. What you get in the jar from the market is old and and full of anti-caking agents that well, I just don’t want in my food. At home, I have three grinders. They’re nothing fancy or expensive; just simple coffee grinders. I use one exclusively for chilies, one for all spices and one as a backup should another fail.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t that overkill?” Well, it’s not. Consider this: You spend $10-$20 on each grinder and you spend about $4 for a pound of cumin seeds at your local ethnic foods market. You’ll have cumin all year (about 2 months for me) plus you can grind tons of other spices. At my local Stop & Shop, Spice Islands cumin sells for nearly $5 for a small 1.5 ounce bottle! That’s just ridiculous. I use almost half the bottle just to make chili or taco seasoning.
I always keep staple spices on hand to blend into almost any seasoning you can imagine. Cumin, Coriander, Black Peppercorns, Pink Peppercorns, Bay Leaf, Garlic Powder (yes, I DO buy that) Nutmeg, Cloves, Dill, Fenugreek, and Anise Seeds are my stand-bys. I also have Szechuan Peppercorns, Mustards Seeds (Yellow and Brown), Mace, Saigon Cinnamon (to name a few) that add a little extra ‘something’ to my mixes. You’ll be surprised how creative you can be by blending your own creations and sharing them with friends and family.
A word on toasting spices: Mind your heat! I usually toast on medium low with a heavy bottomed skillet. Your nose knows when its ready. You can’t leave them for long because they can burn quickly and all is wasted and you’ll have to start over.
One thing about spice blends that can be magical (and infuriating) is putting them together and finding that perfect blend that you want to keep under lock and key, but wait, you forgot to write it down…
Here is a version of tandoori masala that made me happy:
½ cup red chili
¼ cup whole coriander seeds
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
½ tbsp whole black pepper
½ tbsp whole cloves
½ tbsp whole cardamom pods (I prefer black cardomom here.)
1 tsp whole fenugreek seeds
3 2-inch sticks of cinnamon or cassia bark
1 tsp dried ground ginger
1 tsp dried ground garlic
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground turmeric
3 – 4 tbsp paprika, or whatever makes you happy
Toast the whole spices over medium heat until they’re nice and fragrant. Then grind! I like to sift it a few times to make sure everything is a nice consistent powder. A: It looks pretty, B: It looks pretty.
You’ll eventually find that your tastes are different than mine or your friend’s, and you can play with a myriad of combinations that suits you. Some like it spicier, some like more cumin, etc. Just be creative and have fun. Soon, you’ll be concocting spices tailored for your friends and family.
After trying a few Indian recipes, I found some that really spoke to me. I couldn’t understand them due to the language barrier, but I was impressed by the the play of flavors and textures. The only problem was, I was missing a vehicle to soak up the sauce: a starch! Many recipes suggested rice, which is okay, but I wanted something else. I’m not a rice hater, but I do like my bread.
I found that there are so many different breads that Indians use to sop up those flavorful sauces and chutneys. I decided to start with the basics. Luckily the recipe book started with “Chapter 1 – The Basics”. I found the recipe for the basic “roti” which is a flatbread. It’s like the Intian tortilla. I’m sure that others would disagree with that statement. It comes together really easily and only has 3 ingredients: flour, water and salt. The flour that is used is a whole wheat called “atta”. The first batch I made was a bust. I didn’t knead the dough enough and the roti was dry and mealy. My second batch I let rest for almost an hour simply because I was prepping everything else for Palak Paneer. I’ve been told that the less dough you have left on your hands, the more of a pro you are. I had a fair amount of dough left on my hands so I’m not going to quit my day job, yet.
The roti were so tasty and I can’t wait for the next batch. There are so many different variations of roti that I will try every single one of them over time. Next up, the paratha.
It all started with a gift card from Amazon.com… I saw a cookbook on sale from the “Indian Rachel Ray” and I thought, “Wow, I must own that.” I bought the book and when it came, I poured over the pages and was mesmerized by the strange vegetables and spices I’ve never heard of. I was ready for my next culinary adventure. So, with curiosity driving my urge to create a meal that would whisk me away to India, I set off for an Indian market in Waltham, Massachusetts.
As I entered the store, I was immediately astonished at the amount of fresh produce that greeted me. Fresh “methi” or fenugreek leaves, amaranth leaves, cilantro, long beans, ridged gourd and tindora. I was in foodie heaven! I soon realized I had no idea what was on my list. What in the world are “cluster beans”? They were labeled “gavarfali” in the store. They weren’t what I had pictured at all! I stood blocking the aisle with cell phone in hand looking up “gavarfali” on Wikipedia and trying to make sense of my shopping list. Finally, I decided to just look around and grab a few things that were familiar in the produce department and then move on to the spice aisles that taunted me from the rear of the store.
I’m a little OCD when it comes to shopping. I tend to wander in the same pattern in stores. I circle the circumference of the place and then dive into the middle later on. The next section was dairy. Man alive! Only $5 for a half gallon of yoghurt? I’m already sold on the store based on that. I picked up some paneer, ghee, and a mango lassi to drink on the way home.
I stood in front of a wall of dried chilies. Pasilla, chipotle, ancho, cayanne, aji, arbols… Heaven. Without thinking, I grabbed one of each just in case I didn’t have it at home. I was blown away on the prices. They were cheaper by dollars compared to my local grocery store for the same brands!
As I came around the corner, I could smell an odor that I can only describe as a dried, rotten onion. On both sides of the aisle, I saw bags and containers of powders, leaves and whole spices. I eyed a small plastic round container about the size of a shot glass and picked it up. The dried rotten onion smell was stronger. I took a whiff and verified that the odor was coming from that tiny little container. It was asafoetida or “hing”. I looked at my rather long shopping list and it was on there. Reluctantly, I picked it up and put it in my basket. My hand now smelled strongly of onion and garlic.
I picked up bags of whole coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Fenugreek is a small seed that has notes of maple syrup. I found nigella (kalonji) seeds and green and black cardamom. I was in heaven. I also had “black salt” on my list. Like a fool, I was looking for black salt. Being a proud male, I refused to ask anyone. Instead, I picked up my trusty phone and looked it up. Ah! Black salt is not black… It’s pink. It smells like… sulfur. Great. I put it in my basket next to the as(s)afoetida and continued down the aisle and down my list. Ajwain, amchur and anardana make their way into my basket. I picked up some different flours and and other unique ingredients and headed for the check-out.
On my way home, I was brimming with excitement to try out all the new ingredients. I couldn’t wait to make a nice “dal” or lentil stew and make naan and top it with nigella seeds. When I finally got home to my kitchen, I began unpacking the bags and opening each spice and to breathe its perfume. The ajwain smells like thyme but looks like little dill seeds and the anardana has a sweet-sour pomegranate aroma (it’s dried and ground pomegranate seeds). I was like a kid discovering something new and I couldn’t wait to cook something and share it with my friends.
I turned the pages of my pristine new cookbook and looked at a recipe called “Amti’, a sweet and sour lentil dish. It called for a spice mix named “Goda Masala”. It is a blend of coriander, cumin, lichen stone flower, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, caraway, black pepper, bay leaves, cobra saffron, mace, dried coconut, white sesame seeds, chilis and asafoetida! I roasted each of the ingredients and put them in one of my many spice grinders and whirred away. When I took off the top, a blast of a sweet and earthy aroma took me on a mini vacation. Ok, it really just reminded me of Christmas and spiced cookies. I knew this blend of spices were meant for a savory dish and that my new culinary adventure was about to begin. Even though I have never been to India, I knew that by learning about the food of its people would somehow take me away, if only just for an afternoon.
I made the Amti and, well, it really wasn’t my favorite, but it was filled with flavor. The smells that came from my kitchen while the spices and lentils cooked took me on a journey to Maharashtra. Even though I didn’t really like it, I wasn’t going to let one recipe stop me from my taste adventure. India does have over 1.2 billion people and plenty of culture. Next stop: Gujarat!