The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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Tag: home cooking

Homestyle Bliss

Fennel Soup“We eat better at home than most people do in restaurants.”

I wish I could take credit for this one line, that I truly regard as a statement of truth. But it comes from Dr. Morris Wizenberg, father of Molly, the warm and friendly and spirited voice behind one of my favorite blogs, Orangette.

I have been reading Orangette for a long time now, and I also own copies of Molly’s books, Delancey and A Homemade Life, both of which are worthy of repeat readings. I must confess, I have not cooked much (or anything, probably) from Molly’s blog but her beautiful writing keeps bringing me back to it.

About eating better at home…. I couldn’t agree more. P and I have often felt the same. Digging into a steaming bowl of bajra-moong khichdi, nourishing and hearty and delicious in all the right ways, is a blissful experience. At work, lunch is often a mound of brown basmati rice with a generous serving of bright yellow kale moong dal, spiced with turmeric, lime juice, cumin and mustard seeds. The simple, clean flavors bowl me over every time. Or maybe it is the highly slurpable rice noodle soup with vegetables, seasoned with Bragg’s liquid aminos, fresh ginger and toasted sesame oil, that hits the spot on a blustery, windy Atlanta day. Sometimes, it is also P’s excellent Punjabi chhole that he makes sans onion and garlic, at my behest. Quite often, it is a simple slice of toasted multi-grain spelt bread with a generous slathering of Earth Balance buttery spread, layered with avocado slices, black salt and freshly ground pepper.

This happens a lot. And I am no accomplished cook. I just like to eat at home, mostly.

I stick to a simple routine. I use basic recipes. I don’t have an exhaustive spice “wardrobe.” (I just made up that term right now.)

It is probably a combination of the fact that I don’t snack much + I cook with fresh, organic produce (as much as I can) + the food is freshly cooked… that the most delicious, satisfying meals I have ever eaten have emerged out of the four gas burners in my kitchen.

Culturing Food Impressions

 

Growing up in India so many years ago, we didn’t go out to eat much. Mostly, we ate at home.

My Mom is a wonderful cook. She doesn’t take herself (or cooking) so seriously and I mean that in a good, no, great, way. To put it better, she takes herself (and cooking and life) lightly, so she lands easy. Anyway, the point I am making is that Mom is an effortless cook. She throws together seemingly opposite ingredients, adds a dash or two of various spices, moves the ladle around, turns the heat off… and voila, you have a delicious dish ready.

As kids, we hardly ever got an opportunity to complain about food. Mom made the most heavenly petal-soft idlis, served with piping hot sambar and steaming hot coffee. Her rotis were light and delicious, the curries fresh and flavorful. She asked friends for recipes, experimented with old favorites, and came up with new concoctions with fearless abandon. And Daddy, G and I were the happy beneficiaries.

Today, I understand that her food was laced with love and caring, and that is what elevated her cooking to divine heights. Maybe she wasn’t an accomplished cook at all but there was no missing the sweet tenderness that pervaded the dishes. Now take the case of Dad who cooked for us when Mom visited my grandmother. He didn’t make anything fancy but everything he cooked was delicious. Simple flavors, lightly spiced, fresh and nourishing… Oh yum.

The result of those happy food years is that today I have an amazing set of taste buds. Rather, I learned fairly early to discriminate between bad food and the best kind. Meditation has only added to the sense of refinement.

It is like priming. When your senses are trained to consume the very best that is on offer, then what develops is discrimination. You learn to recognize what is good for you and what isn’t. You actively begin making changes about what you consume and what you avoid.

Once you have tasted nectar, how can you settle for carbonated water?

Presenting the Masala Dabba… Spice Box!

Masala Dabba, usually in stainless steel, comes with seven little dibbis, each one carrying a colorful spice, covered by a steel lid. Indispensable in every Indian kitchen. Yes, that about describes it.

When I first moved to the United States, I was entranced with IKEA. I snapped up a set of their cute little glass jars, thinking they’d be perfect to store spices. The transparent glass exterior would render it easy for me to view and pick the spice of my choice. My mother and mother-in-law use the renowned Masala Dabba but I was building a new kitchen, the first one in my life. And I was determined to be different. (Why do we want to forge a separate identity for ourselves? Question for another time.) So I went ahead, picked a bunch of the little glass jars, filled them with spices. And waited. No, I didn’t… 🙂 I set about learning to cook, poring the Internet for traditional recipes. Growing up, neither my younger sister nor I expressed the slightest intention to learn cooking, and my mother gave up on her efforts to make us do so. She wisely decided that when push came to shove, we would learn to cook. And we did.

The glass jars didn’t quite cut it. They looked so hip and trendy but maybe I wasn’t hip enough for them? Aah, well. Anyway, next India trip, I made a beeline to the nearest Indian kitchen appliance store and got myself a stainless steel Masala Dabba with the seven little dibbis. Brought the set home to Atlanta, washed and dried them all, filled them with my favorite spices and seeds. What’s in my Masala Dabba currently?

Take a look.

Masala Dabba

Bright yellow turmeric or haldi (center) – Fragrant, healing, warming, antiseptic

Starting from top right and moving clockwise,
Garam Masala – A unique combination made by dry-roasting and grinding a bunch of whole spices including cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf, cloves and others, a little Garam Masala goes a long way! This one came home with me from India.
Mustard seeds – Indispensable to many South Indian dishes! When the seeds begin to pop in hot oil, it is time to get moving!
Dhania-Jeera Masala (Coriander-Cumin Powder) – A light spice combination that brings in a “green” (for want of a better word) flavor to all dishes
Fenugreek Seeds – Excellent digestive properties that have a bitter crunch to them when cooked. I don’t use them as much as I wish I did.
Kashmiri dried red chilli powder – Potent in small doses, a pinch or two does the trick.
Cumin seeds – I throw a couple of spoons into almost every lentil dal and/or vegetable dish I make.

Indian cuisine is not loaded with spices, as many people are wont to think. It is more accurate to state that Indian cooking relies on a huge plethora of spices for its rich flavors and varied taste palettes. However, throwing copious amounts of spices into any and every dish is not a sign of a good cook, although it may very well be the hallmark of chefs cooking in Indian restaurants here in the U.S… sigh. Instead, knowing the essence of each spice and intuiting the best method and quantity to use it, at the right time… these are signs of skilled cooks world over, aware and reflective, intuitive and listening.

These days, my mother (and my mom-in-law) use spice mixes sparingly. With age and experience, maturity and sensitivity, their hands and minds work skilfully, adding a teaspoon of turmeric here, a pinch of red chilli powder there, a cup of freshly ground coconut+cumin+dried red chillies into a pan of cooked amaranth and lentils, a handful of chopped cilantro into a pot of steaming moong dal…. and the end result is harmony, flavor, nourishment, health.