Funny thing, love is. Can take your whole world and scramble it. Not just the externals, but the underlying physics, the definition of what is possible, of up and down, of do and don’t, of won’t and maybe, maybe, maybe this time I will.
Love can screw with all of this.
Once struck, you may find yourself unrecognizable, as I did the other day, standing in an Indian grocery store, cookbook in hand, insisting to a befuddled shopkeeper that, yes, I must have mace blades, not nutmeg, not powdered anything, mace blades, because that is what the book says, and, yes, I am going to follow this recipe down to the last stir and pour and press.
Did I know what mace blades looked like? Hadn’t the foggiest idea.
But one thing was clear -- there would be no improvising, substituting or freewheeling-go-with-the-flow compromises. I would find the mace blades. Even it meant three more stores. Thank you veeeeeeery much.
Who was this recipe-wielding woman? Running around town scaring shopkeepers and googling spices in the back of cramped incense-filled aisles. Well, judging by the frizzy hair and tattered purse, that was me. Just me all cranked up on love.
Blame Raghavan Iyer.
I’ve been reading cookbooks for more than 20 years. Love them. Have shelves of them. Can quote them and discuss them and reference them. But never, in all those years, did it occur to me that I should actually listen to what the authors were saying. As in follow a recipe from start to finish.
I’m not sure how to explain this. It’s just who I’ve always been. I read cookbooks, then close them and cook.
Every now and again, I try and change my ways. Usually, after some wild, semi-public kitchen disaster, I’ll crack open a cookbook and vow to be good. To learn and obey. Cook like my step-mother Gaby or my friend Alyson Mandel – women who move deftly across cultures and flavors, translating words on a page into beautiful feasts on a plate.
Over the years, I’ve had a few recipe successes. I let Paula Wolfert guide me to a tasty Moroccan chicken. And I once followed directions for porgy with artichokes from beginning to end. While living in Eugene, Oregon, I prepared a recipe for vegetarian “meatloaf” that included cashews, caraway seeds, and ketchup – this is the kind of thing that happens when you live in Eugene.
But the recipe thing never lasted. Sooner or later – usually sooner – I was back to the loud music, and the dancing, and the spontaneous pinch-of-this and shake-of-that style that is life in my kitchen.
And then I fell in love. It happened this summer as I was recovering from surgery. I started to read Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries. The book had been on my shelf for years, plucked off the review pile at the newspaper. But I had never cracked it.
Now I started to read. And read. And read.
I wasn’t strong enough to cook, but I carried the book with me from bed to couch. Slurped my morning Cheerios hunched over Iyer’s conversational blend of stories, Indian history, and expert advice on everything from how to wash lentils to how to blend an array of garam masalas.
Maybe it was the post-surgical pain. Or the mind-twisting painkillers. Or the fact that I ached for my knives and pans, for warmth and laughter and children running through my kitchen as I never had before.
For whatever reason, Iyer’s book spoke to me. And I fell hard. Hard enough to erase 20 years of cooking memories, and make me feel like I was discovering the joys of food for the first time.
I no longer wanted to rebel. To put my own stamp on things. Instead, I wanted to learn.
Iyer's writing seduced me with a rare combination of authority and chatty charm.
I wanted to know what he knew. Go where he could take me. There was no more need for short cuts, or to see how everything might taste if I added lemon. The old me was gone, or morphed somehow. The new me was willing to listen. And to grind six different blends of garam masala, chase down jaggery and mace, harass shopkeepers if necessary. If the recipe said so, I was there.
(As you can see from the above picture, I did have to substitute kosher salt for rock salt, which I have yet to find in this area.)
I started with the dals, then paneer, and am now venturing into the meat dishes. I've tried roughly 10 recipes -- some several times over. Most -- like Chicken Thighs with a Peanut Sauce -- were incredible. There’s only been one dud, and that’s because we discovered that no one in the family likes gongura leaves. (Yes, this is the kind of cookbook that asks for ingredients like gongura leaves. Although, to make things easier, Iyer has a new online spice store where you can buy the masala blends if you don't want to grind them yourself.)
Each of my children has a favorite so far, but we have another 650 curries to go.
Iyer is a teacher at heart, explaining not only what to do, but why. Here’s one example from the end of a recipe for saag paneer:
You will notice that I use two garam masalas here in different ways. Initially you add the untoasted blend early on, soon after the onion browns, to make sure the raw spices cook, providing the first spice layering. Then you swirl in the toasted garam masala toward the end, after the curry had cooked. This blend is a finishing spice (and does not need to cook since you toasted it before grinding it), yielding a second tier of flavors that are aromatic, smooth, and assertive. Both blends contain similar spices, but what you did with them at various stages creates a complex tasting sauce.
This man layers flavor to a level I’ve never experienced before. It’s my favorite thing about his cooking. Precise discipline in the kitchen resulting in wild abandon in the bowl, flavor after flavor after flavor – yes, yes, yes, and yes. And then just when you think it is all there, here it comes, another nuance, another twist, something unexpected, and deep. It’s an approach that appeals to the new and the old me. And my main motivation for following his every instruction.
I am learning as I go. Ingredients. Techniques. Spice palattes. Mostly what I am learning is trust. In Iyer as a teacher. And in myself as a student.
The past few days, I’ve started to eye my cookbook collection in a new light. What have I been missing with all my years of stubborn independence?
I intend to find out. Eventually. But for the moment, I am happy with Iyer and another one of his lessons.
Adapted with permission from 660 Curries
Workman Publishing, 2008
1 cup skinned split brown lentils (salmon-colored in this form, masoor dal), picked over for stones
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon rock salt
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds from green or white pods
½ teaspoon whole cloves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
3 or 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne, or Serrano chilies to taste, stems removed
¼ cup ghee or canola oil
1 large red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 large tomato, cored and finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric
1. Put lentils in a sauce pan. Rinse them in water until the water runs fairly clear – 3-4 times. Drain. Then add three cups of water and bring to a boil. Skim off and discard any foam. Reduce heat to medium low, cover the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, 18-20 minutes.
2. Combine the cumin seeds, rock salt, cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns, and chilies in a mortar. Grind with a pestle to form a gritty, pulpy mass.
3. Heat the ghee in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and pulverized spice mixture. Stir once or twice. Then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns caramel brown with a deep purple hue and the spices smell sweet, 20-25 minutes.
4. Stir the tomato and turmeric into the onion mixture and cook, uncovered, until the tomato softens a little, 2-4 minutes.
5. Add the tomato-onion mixture to the dal, and stir once or twice. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until flavors mingle, 3-5 minutes. Then serve.
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