Monday, July 24, 2006

She who controls the Spice...

We had a little dinner party last night. In our apartment. We don't entertain in our house very much -- it's a bit of a tight fit. Sure, the table might look nice in this picture, but if I backed up any further to take this picture I'd go through the wall.

Eric and I keep thinking we should do a show for Food Network. "Four Courses in Four Square Feet."

Since it's so HOT we decided that maybe spicy Indian food might be the answer. As usual, I planned a meal for six people that included enough food to feed ten, but now we have lots of great leftovers.

On the menu:

Mango Lassi

Tandoori Game Hens with a Cucumber Raita
Basmati Rice Pilaf with Apricots and Almonds
Chickpea Salad
Saag Paneer
Bengan Bhartha

Chiku Sorbet

Bucheret from Redwood Hill Farm
Honey & Toasted Walnuts

A lot of the dishes we pre-prepped so that we could enjoy chatting when everyone arrived. Very Martha Stewart. In magazines, you always see the hostess jubilantly chatting with guests as she deftly prepares a cassoulet with one hand and uncorks a Syrah with the other. But control freak that I am, I've learned over the years that I have to have the entire mise en place pretty much set up and labelled and ready to go ... or else I'll freak out, swing the 8-inch chef's knife around my head and start blurting out irrelevant responses to my guests. Nowadays, I try to leave myself one picturesque task , like chopping cilantro or slicing lemons. Everything else needs to be plug-and-play.

Eric and I have a system that includes a lot of prep bowls and notes on post-its. It works quite well. And for this dinner I planned shopped and prepped, and Eric cooked. I feel like an executive chef.

For dishes like curries and such, I have a masala recipe I like a lot. From Cuisine of course. It makes a huge difference to actually toast and grind your own masala, as opposed to using a commercial curry powder.

Every time I make it the house smells great. I feel like I should be stalking around like Muad'Dib, with glowing blue eyes -- "He who controls the Spice controls the universe!"

Try it once, you'll never go back.

Dry Masala

2 Tbsp cumin seeds
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cardamom seeds
1 Tbsp. ground turmeric

Place the seeds in a dry saute pan and toast over medium high heat until they're fragrant and brown. Stir often to keep them from burning.

Transfer the whole batch to a clean coffee grinder and process into a powder. Remove from grinder and mix in the turmeric.

The Spice will keep for a month in a jar or tupperware before it starts losing impact. WHen I have a batch of it going I sprinkle it on any recipe that asks for Garam Masala or curry powder.

We put it on the Bengan Bhartha -- an eggplant dish that I felt was a little bland. Actually that was the dish for me that was just a little too much trouble for the amount of product.

I started it early in the morning, so I could roast the eggplants while it was still cool in the house, and I, bleary-eyed, failed to puncture the eggplants before popping them in the oven.

So they exploded.

Eric thought we should change the name to Bangin' Bhartha.

Then I burned my hand with hot oil while saute-ing. (Small aside: Everyone who cooks should go out and buy some Second Skin Moist Burn Pads to keep around the house. You can find it at many drugstores. If you ever burn yourself badly, Just slap one of those on the burn. It's amazing how it helps cool and heal it. In the places where I placed the Second Skin, the skin is fine. On the edge though, just where the stuff missed covering the burn, I have a blister.)

Anyhow so the upshot of the Bhartha episode is that it was tasty, but I'm still working hrough some residual resentment about the dish.

I will mention the Saag Paneer though, a very tasty spinach and yogurt dish that has about a million different versions. It uses an Indian cheese called paneer, which is very much like drained ricotta. You can make it at home, but we also found it at Bombay Bazaar on Valencia, where we picked up cumin, coriander and fenugreek seeds as well as the chiku ice cream.

Here's a variation of Ismail Merchant's Saag Paneer, which is very tasty.

1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach
7 oz chunk of paneer
3-4 Tbsp vegetable oil
6 Tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
a pinch of tumeric
1 cup yogurt

Wash the spinach well. Cook it in a large saucepan with 1/2 cup of water for 2-3 minutes. When tender, drain and chop.

Cut the paneer into 1/2-inch cubes. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Fry the cubes of paneer in batches, turning over once or twice, until they are light brown. Remove the paneer with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

In a large skillet, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat and cook the onion until it begins to brown. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the ginger and the spices, and stir well. Heat for a few minutes. Transfer the contents of the skillet into a food processer. Add the yogurt and process together until smooth.

Transfer the spinach mixture back to the skillet. Add the paneer, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

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