Monday, July 19, 2010

Playing with the Spices

I have been having SO much fun lately since receiving the serendipity of a wondrous grab bag of spices and spice mixes from a trying to recreate some of the tastes I never seemed to be able to duplicate from one of our favorite ethnic foods (well, ethnic to us), Indian (as in India) food.

The smallish bottle labeled "curry" languishing in my spice cabinet just wasn't delivering...and I knew it was my own lack of knowledge of individual ingredients, technique, whatever...but my curry always tasted like an American 1950s version (sweetish, yellowish, usually with chicken and pineapple chunks if you followed the southern church cookbook recipes). But I craved the slow burn (the different masalas), the smooth buttery korma-ness (I'm thinking of the cashew-rich sauce dishes), the complexity (can we even start to mention all the chutney and minty and sour and yogurt-y condiments?), fragrance of coconut, heat of chili, mustard seeds, on and on the list goes...the explosion of a dozen or a hundred different complementary tastes. A nod to suburbia dishes of yore notwithstanding, I wanted the Indian buffet mom-n-pop spice bazaar house-smelling-like-incense-and-spices version.

So did Jack.

That's the reason I didn't give up. Because before actually ending up with something edible, he has soldiered through quite a few servings of my less-than-stellar experiments.

Anyway, this is not intended to be a long post...I've just found that some prepackaged spice mixes really do the trick, and the addition of a few pinches here and there of specific ones can really amp up the flavor.

Today's discovery...fenugreek. Have you ever made a really great dish, included great ingredients, and kept tasting it wondering what that one missing thing is? I came from a family that basically only knew a few spices, most of them in the Italian family. Windows of scent and flavor opened up to me as I began to try specific herbs and spices beyond that.

Cilantro...big favorite. It really gives that "something" to certain dishes, especially fresh.

Garlic, onions, scallions, a given.


Cumin...adds the magic of depth and aroma to SO many foods.

Well, I've only just discovered that there are a handful of spices that "make" Indian food kind of "pop" are the ones so far...I'm sure this is just a beginning:

Serrano peppers. I didn't know peppers beyond jalapeno and bell peppers, but the serranos are the glossy dark green chilis a bit more slender than the jalapenos. Added whole to an Indian sauce, they don't overwhelm with heat but lend it gently...kind of an infusion. Terrific :)

Garlic, ginger, mustard seeds. Warmed before starting a sauce in a teaspoon of ghee (clarified butter) or clear oil. It mellows the flavors and infuses the oil with them.

Coconut milk. I keep a can in the fridge and only use a teaspoon or so at a time. It lends wonderful fragrance and balances flavors if things get too heavy.

Cumin. OK, yes, yet another area of the world that has made it its own. Warm and earthy. Yep!

Yogurt. This is probably the ingredient that helps make these dishes our favorites. Something about a few spoonsful of plain yogurt added to a dish that already goes "Pow" just refines it...or something...maybe it's the slight sourness, the smoothness, but it's a wonderful match.

Cilantro. Yup. That spice just won't quit. We love it fresh in and on the servings.

Fenugreek. Already mentioned but I got my first little bag of it today at a hole-in-the-wall convenience store that happened to have (of all things) an Indian food aisle (I'll be back!). As cumin is to chili (and so many other things), so is fenugreek to Indian...I can't describe it, but it was what my food was missing...the depth and fragrance I never could put my finger on before. Hooray! I love when I find one of those keys :)

Anyway, there 'tis for now. We're trying to phase out the rice for now, since it's not on our preferred Kill-the-Diabetes regimen. So I'm putting a lot of fresh cauliflower, onions, some bits of lean meat at times, and other veggies as they get cycled through, into the mix...literally a mix...the spice packet, usually some tomato (but sometimes not), and yogurt plus whatever spices I decide to play with in addition (you know I throw those Serrano peppers in there a-plenty). Not only is the dish fantastically EASY, it's SO delicious :) (and credit goes to the spice mix packet creators). Tonight's is the Chicken Tikka Masala. Leftovers, if there are any, only get better over time...the flavors truly marry and whoa...fabulous.

Anyway...back to play with the spices. You can't take the southern out of this southern girl, and I'm never too far from my Fried Green Tomato Roots...but this is a fun trip around the world without a passport. Isn't it fun? Half the fun is trying to decipher unfamiliar labels, wondering how they are supposed to be used, experiementing, and sniffing out those elusive Marco Polo silk road ingredients that wars were fought over and continents explored.

(If you hear anything exploding in my kitchen, at least it'll probably smell good...ha)

Happy eats :)


Summer said...

Hi there! I've just discovered your blog (which is very interesting, btw) :) and I'd like to make two other spice recommendations for you (my husband is Indian). Mustard seeds and turmeric! Those can really make dishes pop.

If you'd like some recipes from my MIL, I'd be happy to share!

Robbyn said...

Summer, hi, I'd LOVE some recipes from your mother-in-law, and if you'd like I'll post them here! Oh you're so so right about mustard seeds...I use the mustard seeds now in things even besides the Indian dishes, for some zing. Does turmeric have a flavor? I usually add it for the gorgeous color and because it's really good for my diabetes but never really thought about the taste. Welcome to the's down to an occasional ramble now rather than daily entries, but it's still here after what now, four years? hard to believe...I look forward to the recipes, send em' on and we'll give your MIL full credit :)