By Emily Paster
Do you make a lot of ethnic cuisine at home? Are you the master of really excellent pad thai, enchiladas, teriyaki or bastilla? Perhaps you have close friends or family members who taught you how to make a really authentic mole or chicken adobo. As for me, my family heritage has me cooking either Eastern European Jewish cuisine, like matzo ball soup, or a select few Swedish dishes from my mother's side of the family, neither of which is very exotic in this day and age.
The truth is, almost all of my home cooking could be characterized as American, French, or Italian. I love to eat Spanish, Middle Eastern, Greek, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian, North African and Latin American cuisines in restaurants. And I would be very willing to taste any other country's cuisine if someone offered me the chance. I have tried Lithuanian, Filipino, West African and Afghan food in my time. But I almost never experiment with these styles of cooking at home. Like many cooks, I can be intimidated by unfamiliar cooking techniques or hard-to-find ingredients. I am reluctant to make special trips to ethnic grocery stores and spend money on new sauces or spices when I am not even sure if my efforts to recreate these restaurant favorites will succeed.
But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, even someone who loves to cook as much as I do can get into a rut. One way to break out of a cooking rut, and to avoid ordering too much take-out, is to try making different types of cuisine at home. Indian cuisine — which is know is not monolithic, but actually many different regional styles of cooking — is one of my absolute favorites and I don't get to eat it nearly enough. So, I decided that I would try to recreate some of my favorite Indian dishes at home. Many Indian styles of cooking use ingredients and spices that most enthusiastic cooks already have, such as ginger, rice, yogurt, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and turmeric. So it is a good cuisine to experiment with if you are new to ethnic cooking.
A few weeks ago, I tried my hand at Chicken Tikka Masala, which turns out is actually an Anglo-Indian dish — going so far as to marinate the chicken in yogurt and grill it separately before combining it with the tomato-cream sauce. That was a lot more work than I had bargained for. And this week, when faced with an aging head of cauliflower, I attempted a rendition of one of my vegetarian dishes, aloo gobi. This one was a lot easier.
Aloo gobi is a Punjabi dish that combines cauliflower and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. I found many recipes for it online but none of them sounded quite like the dish I remembered. I ended up basing much of my version on this recipe from the Food Network, but modifying it to include tomatoes — an essential part of the dish in my recollection. I was really excited by how well my version turned out. It actually tasted like the aloo gobi I had ordered in so many different Indian restaurants.
The only spice that this recipe calls for that I might not expect to find in a well-stocked kitchen is cumin seeds — most people have ground cumin. Cumin seeds are not difficult to find however; I bought some after taking a Sri Lankan cooking class last fall. A small jar will go a long way. I used ghee or Indian-style clarified butter — which I bought at my local Whole Foods — for maximum authenticity but you could just as easily use a mild-tasting oil. Feel free to substitute a different hot pepper for the Serrano pepper I recommend here. The point is, this is an easy-to-make dish that may not be a part of most American home cook's repertoire. So, why not give it a go? Plus, it is a hearty vegetarian dish, which is nice both for budget and for health reasons.
For the garam masala:
8 cloves garlic, peeled
1-2 inch hunk fresh ginger, peeled
1 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/2 cup water
For the aloo gobi:
2 TB ghee or vegetable oil
1 Serrano pepper, halved
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 Russet potatoes, diced
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup water
First, make a paste with the garlic and ginger by pureeing it in a small food processor. Drizzle in the vegetable oil until a paste forms. This step can be done ahead of time. To make the garam masala, mix the ginger-garlic paste with the coriander, turmeric and water in a small bowl. Set aside.
Heat the ghee or oil over medium in a large, deep skillet until shiny. Add the halved Serrano pepper and the cumin seeds. When the cumin seeds stop sputtering, add the garam masala and cook for a few minutes until the mixture thickens. Add the diced potatoes and toss to coat with the oil and spice. Next add the cauliflower florets and the can of crushed tomatoes. Add about a half-cup of water to cover. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 20-25 minutes depending on the size of the pieces. Remove the cover and cook a few additional minutes to thicken the sauce, if necessary. Remove the Serrano pepper before serving. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve over rice or with Indian breads, such as naan. (I like the Trader Joe's frozen garlic naan heated in the oven and brushed with melted butter.)
Have you mastered one of your favorite restaurant dishes? If so, which one?