Feasting Indian-Style

Saturday was a flurry of shopping, visiting, cooking, eating, laughing, and some more eating after that.

We celebrated the return of our friend Heather, to the US after spending the summer at a university in Beirut, learning Arabic in an intensive language course. We also celebrated Morganna’s homecoming as well; she has officially moved into our home from her father’s, and will be starting school here in Ohio in the fall.

Heather asked, through Dan, before she made it home, that I cook either Indian or Chinese and something spicy, as she found Lebanese food, while delicious and satisfying, to be less spicy than she preferred.
I was happy to comply, and chose to make Indian food, since it is simpler to do in the format of a feast situation for a moderately large dinner party, and because I could cook so much of it ahead and have it only improve from sitting about, pre-cooked.

Let me talk a bit about the structure of a typical Northern Indian dinner; everything I prepared for the celebratory feast was from the culinary traditions of the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. In large part, that is because most of my exposure to Indian foods has come about from my interactions in Indian restaurants in the states, most of which serve Northern Indian cuisine, and also because my Indian friends and clients have all been northerners.

Indian meals are built around a grain product; either rice or some sort of bread. Sometimes both are served at a meal, but that is rare. I broke with tradition and served both a basmati rice pillau with golden raisins and almonds, and some bread, which was an even larger break with tradition, it being challah, a Jewish braided egg-bread, as opposed to naan, chapati or roti. I just happened to have a piece of very excellent bread from a local bakery pressed into my hands to try at the farmer’s market and decided to take some home, determining it would mean that I didn’t have to bake, griddle or fry any bread for that night.

There is nearly always a dal, or legume dish on the menu of a typical Indian meal. I once again broke from tradition by not featuring any bean or lentil based dishes, in large part, because I had a lot of fresh vegetables to use up in the meal and I wanted to make sure and use them in preference to any dried beans. If I had a few more diners coming, I would have presented either channa masala or perhaps some variant on my beloved masoor dal tarka. (I adore that dish.)

Various vegetable dishes are also served. On Saturday, because of the abundance of local eggplant I had (Somewhere along the lines of about a dozen), I decided on baigan bartha; I had just picked up a quart of blue new potatoes from our CSA, so I served saag aloo. (Besides, Tom–pictured at the head of the table– was coming, and since the only Indian food he has eaten has been what I have cooked and he adored saag aloo so much the first time he had it, I wanted to serve it again just for him.)

Then, there are the cold dishes–accompianments. A lot of Americans will leave these dishes out, but while at the market, I had mentioned I was cooking Indian food to a woman who is married to a wonderful man from the subcontinent, and that was the second question she asked me–what cold salads was I serving?

Raita is a natural; it is a yogurt based dish that can be used as a sauce with a main course, as an appetizer, a soup, a side dish, or for a light breakfast or lunch. I served a cucumber, tomato and mint raita made with whole milk yogurt, though I am also partial to potato raitas as well. I just thought that a second potato dish would be too much.

I also served a fresh tomato salad and utilized the lovely, richly flavored heirloom tomatoes which have weighed down my market bags recently. I love Indian salads; they are an excercise in contrasting flavors, colors and textures, and they are so refreshing when eaten next to warm dishes or eaten along with meats.

Finally, I also presented green chutney, which is a finely ground mixture of cilantro, onion, mint, spices and lemon juice, to which I added finely diced red onion for a contrast in color and texture.

The meat dishes, which are not necessary to a balanced Indian meal if a dal is served, were three very different than the usual sauce-laden meat curries. I served the sindhi murgh elaichi–green tandoori style chicken– which I served at the dinner where we said goodbye to Heather earlier this summer, which allowed us to use the charcoal grill to cook outside, thus reducing the heat of the kitchen to some extent. Also cooked on the grill were chappli kebab, a minced lamb patty that I first read about in Madhur Jaffrey’s little book, Quick and Easy Indian Cooking. Finally, I used cubes of lamb shoulder meat to make bohti gosht–which translates as “meat cubes.” Another dish I first learned from that same Madhur Jaffrey book, but which, over the years, I have changed to suit my own taste. It is cooked in the pressure cooker, and results in very moist, tender unsauced meat where the spice paste clings tightly to the cubes.

Chappli kebab, I am told, both by the text in the afformentioned book, and by Pakistani friends, is a specialty of the Pakistani city of Peshwar. It is delicious served wrapped in flatbread with some lettuce salad or tomato salad, and topped with green chutney. The original recipe, and the way I made it for my clients, is very, very spicy, with sliced chiles peppering the meat patties throughout; this version is toned down a bit to allow for the differences in heat tolerance among my friends. I also ground up the chile so the flavor was intense throughout the meat. I also had Zak grill them instead of frying them in oil; it cuts down on fat and it adds a delicious smokiness to the meat that is very enticing.

It is a simple dish which is perfect for a dinner after a busy day; you can prepare the spiced meat the day before or that morning and shape and cook the patties that night, either in an oiled pan on on the grill.

Chappli Kebab

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons chickpea flour (called gram or besan at the Indian market)
1 pound finely ground lamb
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 fresh Thai bird chile., stem removed
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
contents of one green cardamom pod, husk removed
1 teaspoon salt
1 small lightly beaten egg

Method:

Put chickpea flour and meat into a medium sized bowl. Grind together finely the remaining ingredients save the egg. Add spice mixture and egg to bowl, and then using your hands, mix together well.

Cover and refrigerate for at least three hours.

Remove from fridge, form into eight patties, and either grill or fry in an oiled cast iron skillet until they are done to your taste. Take care in turning them over as they are very fragile, and will form a bit of a crust on the outside that is delicious.

Note: They got a bit more done on the outside than I prefer, (Zak was grilling in the dark and was having a hard time seeing how done anything was) though it didn’t really affect their eatability–everyone really enjoyed them, especially topped with the green chutney or dipped in the raita.

Local Eating Update:

The main components of the afformentioned meal: the lamb, chicken, vegetables, fruits, butter and eggs were all local.

The rice was Indian basmati, the spices were bought at the local Penzey’s store in Columbus, though of course, they were grown all over the world, and the yogurt was from Vermont.

I am thinking of picking up more of the Hartzler’s milk the next time we are in Columbus, some for drinking and some so I can try my hand at making my own yogurt. If I can get a good starter going, I may just make my own yogurt as a matter of course. It will be my first step in trying my hand at cheesemaking, yet another long-term culinary project for me to undertake.

3 Comments

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  1. Yogurt is really easy, and you can even start it with a couple of spoons of the yogurt you have on hand, if you like the flavor.

    I follow the directions in Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll: Heat the milk to 180, cool to 116, add the culture, and incubate. I put mine in a mason jar in a small cooler with another mason jar of water that had just boiled. Leave overnight, and you have yogurt in the morning.

    Easy peasy. :)

    Comment by Liz — August 17, 2005 #

  2. I will likely take up making it after I use up the quart I have of it now.

    With more than two of us eating it, it seems sensible enough to make it.

    I gotta go cook potatoes for dinner!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 17, 2005 #

  3. Wow! That was a pretty awesome spread…. :)
    I like your blog and stop by to read sometimes.
    The only comment I wished to make about this post was that in India, you do eat breads and rice at the same meal quite frequently in most parts, if not every day. So it is quite usual for an everyday family dinner to be chapatis, a dry vegetable dish, a vegetable with gravy and /or some kind of lentil dish, salad, papads, rice, yogurt, pickle/chutney…although that is on the more elaborate side.

    Comment by aspiring annapoorna — November 25, 2005 #

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