15 June 2011

Indian Feast

Article and Photos by Elizabeth Miller
     In India, where 31% of the population identifies itself as being vegetarian (and, by many Indian standards, being a vegetarian in the most basic sense means that one eschews not only meat, but also eggs), it’s not difficult to find a great balance of meals that are able to please both vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  With Indian food, you’re being treated to a mix of deep flavors and hearty ingredients that combine to create a vegetarian experience that is not just incredibly delicious, but also undeniably complete.  What you are eating is not a meal that was designed to substitute or make up for a lack of meat, but rather a meal that was created to be tasty and fulfilling by virtue of vegetables alone.  In Indian cooking, vegetarianism is not an excuse to try and recreate the flavors and experiences of a meaty meal, it’s simply a different way of making fantastic and flavorful food.  You don’t miss the meat, because the meat was never meant to be there in the first place.
     This is not to say that India does not boast some incredibly tasty meat dishes.  I’ve eaten a super spicy dish of rogan josh with chicken that possessed a deliciousness capable of sending mere mortals to the outer reaches of the universe in a state of unparalleled bliss.  (And, as an added bit of information, the region of India from which my mother hails is known for its decidedly meat-centric, non-Indian-food-like diet, so I can confirm that it’s not as though all Indian food leans towards vegetables.)  Nevertheless, when I think of Indian food, I oftentimes find myself focusing on vegetables.  In a slightly reversed chain of events, when strolling around amongst the farmers market produce this weekend, I found myself thinking of Indian food.
     I don’t know if it was the one pound tomato I bought from Salmon Creek Farms or the positively enormous single potato I picked up at the Winter’s Farm stand, but just seeing the sheer size of the produce that was featured at the market was making me imagine an all vegetable, all Indian feast that could satisfy even the most carnivorous of hungers.  After relieving the Rick Steffan farm stand of a head of golden cauliflower that was larger than my own head, an arm-sized zucchini, and an onion and a cucumber that together weighed enough to warrant some serious carrying refusal from my son, my grocery bag was practically bursting.
     The state of my grocery bag made for an apt description of our bellies by the end of the evening.  With $10 in farmers market produce, I made three positively heaping dishes of Indian food and, believe it or not, I actually had produce left over after preparing all this food.  An Indian feast for the night, with plenty of spare onions and zucchini left over for a delicious breakfast omelet the next day.  Providing one is able to hoist oneself out of bed and waddle to the stove the following morning, that is.
Indian Zucchini Fritters
(Zucchini Pakoras)
4 cups unpeeled, grated zucchini
¼ cup finely shredded onion
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)
½ cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
½ cup chickpea flour (also called garbanzo flour or besan)
¾ cup water
½ cup vegetable oil, for frying
In a large bowl, combine the zucchini, onion, spices, cilantro (if using), salt, and flours.  Gently stir to combine.  When flour has been evenly distributed, slowly add water in a steady stream, stirring to incorporate.  Stir until the zucchini and onions are completely coated in batter.
Heat the oil in a large nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-low heat, until a pinch of batter bubbles rapidly when dropped in.  Using a 1 tablespoon measure, drop spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil.  Do not crowd the pan or your pakoras will be oily.  Cook each side of the pakoras until golden brown, 2-3 minutes on each side.  Drain the pakoras on a double thickness of paper towels while you fry the remaining batter.  If desired, serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Indian Potatoes and Cauliflower
(Aloo Gobi)
Adapted from Madhur Jeffrey Indian Cooking
1 to 1 ¼ pounds of potatoes
1 large head of cauliflower, about 1 pound of florets, large stem and core removed
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground tumeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
Boil the potatoes in their jackets until tender, then drain and allow to cool completely.  When cool, dice into ½-¾ -inch cubes and set aside.
Separate and slice the cauliflower into medium-sized florets about 1 ½ inches long.  Heat oil in large frying pan set over medium heat.  When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and ground cumin and allow to sizzle for 3-5 seconds.  Add the cauliflower and stir for 2 minutes.  When cauliflower has browned in spots, cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and allow to simmer for 4-6 minutes until the cauliflower is cooked through but still retains a bit of crispness.
Add the diced potatoes, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, salt, and some black pepper to taste.  Stir gently to mix, then continue cooking for an additional 3-5 minutes until the potatoes are warmed through.
Tomato, Cucumber, and Onion Salad
(Kachumber)
1 pound tomatoes, seeded and sliced into a ¼-inch dice
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, and flesh cut into a ¼-inch dice
½ of a large red onion, cut into a ¼-inch dice
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, cucumber, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and salt.
In a small pan set over high heat, dry toast the ground cumin until it begins to turn a dark shade of brown.  Immediately remove pan from heat, then add the toasted cumin to the vegetable mixture.  Stir to evenly combine all the ingredients.
Taste for seasoning.  You may want to add more salt or a squeeze more lemon juice.