I am so excited that the very talented Don Lesser decided to cook from Modern Spice and share his experiences. I would love your comments and thoughts as well at you cook from the book. Here are his–
Guest Post – Don Lesser – www.russelnod.com
The food of the Indian subcontinent has already saved my palette once. After a stint of cooking in a Harvard Square late night eatery, everything I ate or cooked was boring and dull. However, the smells and tastes of the dishes my Pakistani housemate cooked made the world come alive again.
When I got Monica Bhide's cookbook, Modern Spice, in the mail, I was in a similar funk. Just reading the recipes woke up my taste buds. The thing about cooking Indian food is that you need ingredients that the average American household doesn't have lying around-I mean I often have fresh cilantro in the vegetable bin and a bag of Serranos from our garden and another of local ginger from the farmer's market in the freezer-but fresh curry leaves? So, I dumped the old turmeric , black mustard seeds, and fenugreek, made a list and restocked.
You get to know a cook partly through their ingredients. Julie Sahni (Classical Indian Cooking ) likes cardamom-it's in most of her recipes. Madhur Jaffrey, at least in her early books, stuck with the coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and garlic, leaving out the then hard to find ingredients. Monica likes carom seeds, chaat masala, paanch phoron, curry leaves, mango (amchur) powder and various chutneys and prepared masalas. A quick trip to the local Asian markets and I had packages of everything I needed. (In my area, the Asian stores stock Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and often Hispanic ingredients.) To be honest, my first package of curry leaves went bad because I didn't get to them in time, and I usually found myself wishing I'd had the forethought to read the damn recipe before I went shopping. But it all turned out well.
I started with the simple fennel-chili dry rub, a great topping for grilled steak or chicken pieces and moved on to the Beet Salad with Yoghurt Dressing, failed utterly with the Pistachio-Chili-Coriander Spread (i have issues with my blender and can't quite get it to blend things smooth and creamy), and finally hit it big with the Eggplant and Tomatoes with Cilantro, Indian Style Chili (omitting the bread bowls in favor of wheat burritos puffed in a 400 oven to near puri-status), and a version of the Stir-Fried Lamb using chops from the farmer's market. Another hit was the Tomato and Coconut Fish Curry with a side of Zucchini and Yellow Squash with Cumin.
I used to buy a lot of cookbooks (who doesn't, right?), but these days I like to find one that I want to spend some time with. Every time I go through Modern Spice, there is something else I want to make, something I can taste from the description alone. And the interludes don't hurt either-we all have family stories about our food, but Monica's are far more interesting than most.