Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spinach Saag and Papadams

This week, I'm blogging about the basics of Indian spices and cooking.

The recipes, plus tips and tricks I'm sharing, I learned while assisting my yoga-therapist friend, Cindy, conduct an in-home class on Indian cooking 101.

I read on one of the handouts Cindy gave her students that curry powder came into being as an easy way to approximate the flavors of Indian curried dishes.

During the class, it became apparent that one of the advantages to familiarizing yourself with Indian spices is that instead of using generic curry powders or paste, you can improvise with individual spices and create uniquely flavored curries.

As with the food of any culture, there are standard recipes for creating certain dishes, like the saag recipe I'll share today.

However, once you have the basics of a recipe down, and once you feel comfortable with the flavors and properties of Indian spices, you can add or subtract particular spices to infuse a dish with just the flavor you desire.

Cindy included in her handouts a standard recipe for Indian creamed spinach or saag, yet as she prepared the saag, taste-testing as she went, she improvised, tossing in extra spices including a bit of this, a bit of that, till she determined the flavor and the consistency of the spinach was just right.

Certainly this is a style of cooking I prefer since it fosters recipe-independence by engaging our inner culinary expert, reminding us that our taste buds are our best guide when it comes to food and cooking.

All the recipes this week are very simple, so you might like to try experimenting with the spices and ingredients as you make these delicious Indian dishes.

Creamed Spinach -- Saag
2 pounds of fresh spinach (this feeds about 10).
1 chopped white or brown onion.
2 tablespoons oil, it could be a combination of olive and sesame oils or olive oil and ghee or just ghee -- experiment.
Mustard and cardamom seeds, cumin, fennel, and freshly grated ginger.
Milk or cream or a combination of both, or a combination of a vegetable or chicken stock followed by cream or milk -- experiment.
Optional: One can chopped tomatoes.
Salt and pepper to taste.

1) In a large saucepan, heat oil and saute onions and spices on low to med heat.
2) Add spinach in batches, stirring well so that it wilts or cooks down.
3) Once all the spinach has been added to the pot, you can help it cook down by adding some stock, or water if you don't have stock.
4) When the spinach has reduced, add the milk or cream or a combination of both, enough to soak the spinach, though you don't want to drown it (see pic above).
5) Gently cook with the lid off the pot for about 10 mins or so.
6) You can serve the saag chunky or you can put it through the food processor and puree it (as in the top pic.)

We had fried papadams or Indian lentil chips with the dishes made during the class (pic to left).

Light, crispy, plain or spicy, you can purchase the dried chips online or at an Indian grocer.

Chances are if you've eaten at an Indian restaurant, you've had papadams.

Usually they're served as a starter with dipping sides such as yogurt cucumbers, mint sauce, chutney, and a spicy tamarind sauce.

Fried Papadams
1) Heat about an inch of light oil like canola or olive in a skillet or fry pan.
2) Once the oil is smoking, add pieces or whole papadams to oil.
3) The chips will begin to crinkle and then puff up.
4) Once they're lightly browned, remove chips with tongs, placing them on a plate lined with paper hand towel to soak up any excess oil.

To Serve: As you can see in the picture above the papadams, we had side bowls of Dahl, and plates filled with heaping spoons of the Spiced Tumeric Potatoes, boiled basmati rice and Saag.

During the meal, we sipped on glasses of coconut water mixed with plain water. It was slightly sweet (it's very sweet if not diluted with plain water) and coco-nutty but also cooling so it offset the spiciness of the meal beautifully.

After dinner we had cups of Cindy's fabulous homemade chai the recipe for which, I'll post tomorrow.

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