Friday, August 12, 2011

Cooking With Aj

Lunch at home!

  Many of you reading this know that after many years of living in India, my parents have returned to their house on Long Hill Drive!  Having them close again is wonderful, and being back in the house is surreal.  Sleeping in my old room, sorting through boxes of stuff- notes and journals, pictures and letters, videos, drawings and writings- I am 13 years old again, and 17, and 19, and 22… 
  And as much as 411 has meant to me, I know it also lives in the memories of all my friends- from middle school, high school, college and the CIA.  It has a place in the hearts of my far-flung family, who’ve come from all points of the globe to stay and know the beauty that is New Jersey.  It has ever been a welcoming place, with plenty of booze and good food and glittering blue pool out back.  And the two most giving and generally awesome people who own it are always happy to have you over, I’m just lucky enough to call them my mom and dad.

  It’s nice to be home, and the bestest thing about this summer is that my mother’s mother, Aji, has come to stay for a few months.  Every morning she prepares some delectable vegetable dishes for lunch, and I have been watching her cook, trying to absorb all I can.  This is the Indian cuisine of my youth- simple, flavorful and healthy, with no adverse digestive consequences to face afterwards. 

  There is a feeling out there that Indian food is extremely hard to cook, when actually it should be quite uncomplicated once you get the method.  My Aji doesn’t use a big fancy knife and she cooks everything in small pots and pans, but I’ve never tasted anything near as delicious in any restaurant. 

  In French cooking, we start with a mirepoix- in Indian cooking we start by frying spices in hot oil, then adding chilies, onions, garlic and ginger.  The goal is the same, we are building a flavor base.  Aj rubs the cumin seeds in her hand before adding them to the pot to release the oils.  She then adds onions and turmeric and fries them for a few minutes.

  One of my favorite dishes has always been okra, but the few times I’ve tried to cook it I end up with an unappetizing gooey mess.  Aji suggests adding some acid to the dish to cut the goo, in the form of cut tomatoes, lime juice, sour mango powder, or even some vinegar. 

  She adds coriander and cumin powder, salt and a pinch of sugar, then covers and cooks on low for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender.  No goo!  She garnishes with fresh chopped cilantro.

  Meanwhile, my mother works on a delicious cucumber “salad” ( I can’t even begin to spell the word in Hindi)

  She grates ginger and adds to the chopped cucumber, chilies, and salt.  She makes a “sauce” with tamarind, fresh coconut and some jaggery, and tosses in a bit of the fried cumin seed and oil.

  The result is a bright salad- tangy, cool, sweet and spicy all together!
  You might be wondering: where are the recipes??  Well, there are no recipes for this type of vegetarian home cooking- I could tell you to add a teaspoon of cumin seeds or a cup of chopped tomatoes, but you could just as easily leave the tomato out or double the cumin- the beauty is the nuance of the cook, so the same dish can appear in a billion different incarnations in homes all across the world.

  The key is to understand the method: hot oil, spice seeds and chilies, vegetables, ground spices and powders.  After that, it is just a matter of getting to know your spices and flavors: garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, mustard, turmeric, black gram, chili powder… the list goes on and on!  Dual Specialty Store is an excellent Indian grocery near me on 1st Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets, where I can find all the necessary spices.  We Indians have spread ourselves all over this country, and by now I’m sure most of you out there would have no problem locating your local source for split lentils and garam masala. 

   I am still far from confident with my use of the spices, but I’ve gotten better with practice.  Like anything else, it takes testing and tasting, and I’m learning as I go.  I have a lot to live up to, but I can’t be too hard on myself if my cooking doesn’t taste as good as my Aji’s- mine is just starting out and hers is flavored with a lifetime of understanding.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tomato Tarte Tatin

Heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and olives on a puff pastry crust.

  It wasn’t until a summer spent in India that I tasted a real tomato.  I had been a self-proclaimed raw tomato hater for all of my 12 years, but suddenly I was asking for them every morning, sliced on buttered toast.  Glittering juicy red, sprinkled with course salt and pepper, these were like no tomatoes I’d ever tasted- bursting with dark sweetness, they tasted tart and earthy and full of vivid flavor.   

 I thought that I disliked raw tomatoes, but that was just because I had never tasted one- not really.  Sure, they sold “tomatoes” at my mom’s grocery store just like they did at yours.  In fact exactly like the ones at yours, where every tomato on every shelf is the same size and weight and shape and color.  Each looks just as you imagined a perfect tomato should, and yet… there is something terribly wrong here.  It looks like a tomato and feels like a tomato, but what exactly does it taste like?  The sad answer is: not much.
 The tomato is ubiquitous in the American diet, and everyone knows how we like to eat.  But what has become of the tomato is perhaps one of the greatest crimes to fruit and vegetable kind.  To keep up with our demand, what have we sacrificed?  Just taste, texture, and the very essence of what a tomato is and can be.  No wonder so many people think they hate tomatoes, they just don’t realize that they’ve never really had one.  I avoid using raw tomatoes for most of the year because once you’ve tasted this gem at its bright peak, there’s no going back.
 So what is a true tomato lover to do?  
 Be patient and wait-  for tomato season, when the sun-ripened beauties come into the markets by the truckload and I can sort through bins and baskets and barrels of tomatoes of every shape, size and color I could imagine, and some I would never have come up with.  I purchased a box of mixed heirloom varieties and went straight home to put together this delight, a Tomato Tarte Tartin.

oh so cute!
  Pick the best tomatoes you can find- they don’t have to be fancy organic or heirloom, just try for local.  This recipe is a great excuse to buy those gorgeous babies that you’ve been dying to take home with you, so go for it!

  Purchase a package of frozen puff pastry dough- if you are ambitious and have some time to kill, you can certainly make your own, but there are some good quality products available.  Make sure the dough is ALL butter- this an essential part of the “puff” in puff dough, so avoid products with anything but flour, butter, salt and water.  (If you can’t find any, you’re better off with Phyllo.)  Defrost for about an hour at room temp. 
  Flour a clean surface and carefully unfold the dough- dust flour on any sticky spots.  With puff pastry, the point is to keep it as cold as possible, so work quickly to roll out the dough a bit. 

   Let it rest on a sheet in the fridge for ten minutes, then use a sharp knife to cut a circle big enough for your pan.  Keep the cut dough in the fridge until you are ready to use it.

Tomato Tarte Tatin
Zucchini, olives, garlic, bacon, capers, thyme, basil, salt, pepper
1 T sugar
1 T butter
1 circle puff pastry dough, chilled

  1.  Start with a cast iron or heavy bottomed pan that can go into the oven, heated to 400° F.  Cook some sliced bacon until it is crispy, then remove it from the pan.  Pour off half the grease to use for later.
 2.  Cook chopped garlic, then toss in sliced zucchini.  Spread out the pieces so that they are all touching the surface of the hot pan- try to get color on both sides.  Throw in olives, capers, herbs, bacon bits, etc into the pan and cook together. 

 3.   Remove the mixture from the pan, then return to medium-high heat with a pat of butter and the reserved bacon grease if you have it.  Sprinkle the sugar and cook it until it dissolves and starts to brown.  Place the tomatoes sliced-side down into the caramel- and watch out for splattering!
  4.  Turn the heat down low and cook for 5-7 mins, until they soften and get some color on one side.  For the prettiest end result, try not to move them- but don’t worry if you do, the tart will still taste great as long as you remember the salt.

  5.  Add the other goodies back to the pan and remove from the flame. 

  6. Place the pre-cut circle of puff dough over the mixture and slice a few short slits across the middle.  Slide the pan into the oven and bake at 400° F for 25-35 minutes, until the pastry has puffed and is baked all the way through.

  Unbaked puff dough is terrible, so don’t pull it out of the oven too soon.  The crust should be golden brown and flaky and stiff all the way through- if the top is getting too dark, cover it with a sheet of foil and continue baking. 
  7. Be careful when handling the hot pan out of the oven!  Allow the baked tart to cool for twenty minutes, then use a plate to invert it.  Some of your toppings might stay with the pan, but you can put them back on top.

  A fairly simple and versatile preparation, and the result?  Well, you tell me.
  Seriously, this thing is so gorgeous I want to laugh, and so delicious I want to cry.  And I know I have to save some for PJ, but somehow half of it is already gone… Ok more than half.