Across the country in hip restaurants like Tabla in New York and Indique in Washington DC, innovative chefs are putting a modern spin on traditional Indian cuisine, prompting home cooks to prepare equally delicious dishes in their own kitchens. So where can you turn for Indian inspiration? Monica Bhide’s cookbook Modern Spice.
This magnificent cookbook presents a knowledgeable guide to the components that make traditional Indian cuisine so delicious, along with inventive but simple Indian recipes for the more contemporary (and novice) cook. Here are three of Bhide’s favorite recipes, including tips to make them even more mouthwatering.
Paneer and Fig Pizza
One of the best-selling items on the menu at Domino’s in Delhi is the pizza topped with chicken tikka. Yes, Indians do love pizza, and it is very much a part of the modern Indian food scene. But it is nothing new. My mother has made “pizza” since I was about five years old. She used a simple homemade dough topped with a homemade tomato sauce and my choice of chicken or vegetables. It was not called pizza, of course. I called it “chicken wali roti” (a chicken bread). When my son was younger, I took him to an eatery/children’s play area in Delhi called Eatopia. It serves a very popular version of Indian pizza called a Naanza, a naan dough topped with tandoori chicken or a variety of vegetarian toppings. We both fell in love with it. And it really is the same concept as a regular pizza: Great dough with the choicest of toppings. Incidentally, Zante’s in San Francisco has sold Indian pizza since 1993. And California Pizza Kitchen serves a mango–tandoori chicken pizza. I could go on and on.
1 (12-inch) packaged pizza crust (or use homemade pizza crust)
Nonstick cooking spray
1 cup crumbled or grated paneer (Indian cheese)
1 cup ricotta cheese
8 to 10 very ripe figs, trimmed and thinly sliced
11/88 teaspoon ground white pepper
8 to 10 basil leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray the crust with a mist of nonstick cooking spray. In a bowl, combine the paneer and ricotta, and mix well. Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the crust. Top with the figs, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
2. Bake according to the directions given with the crust, usually about 10 to 12 minutes. The cheese will brown a little but it is not a melting cheese, so don’t expect it to bubble. Serve topped with fresh basil leaves.
Note: If your figs are really ripe, this will taste like a dessert! For a savory version, combine the paneer with some minced cilantro, diced red onions and diced bell peppers.
Saffron Mussel Stew
This is a super-simple dish to make, perfect for a fall evening when the weather is getting cold and you feel like something warm and spicy to comfort and soothe you. Buy a nice loaf of crusty bread to mop up this curry.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
20 fresh curry leaves
2 or 3 small green Serrano chiles, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander powder
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 pound mussels on the half-shell, such as New Zealand Greenshell mussels
A few strands of saffron
1. In a deep saucepan, heat the oil over high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onion, ginger, garlic, curry leaves and green chiles. Sauté for 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion begins to change color. Add the turmeric and coriander. Mix well and sauté for another 30 seconds.
2. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the cream. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a blender and blend to a smooth consistency. If you like an even smoother texture, pass the mixture through a sieve. I prefer not to do so.
3. Return the sauce to the saucepan and bring to another gentle boil. Add the mussels and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, shaking the saucepan occasionally. Add salt to taste and the saffron threads; mix well. Serve hot.
Note: If using whole fresh mussels, you will need 1-1/2 pounds. Soak in cold water for an hour. Discard any that open up. Remove beards and rinse well. Then pat dry and proceed with the recipe.
Beet Salad with Yogurt Dressing
In traditional Indian cooking, beets are either steamed or boiled. I prefer to roast them in the oven. I find that this releases their true flavor. Different-colored beets make for a prettier summer salad, but red beets taste just fine.
For the beets:
4 medium beets, different colors if possible, trimmed
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon ground coriander (see Note)
For the dressing:
3/4 cup plain yogurt, stirred
1/4 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon table salt
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wash the beets well and pat them dry. In a medium bowl, combine the pepper, oil, salt and coriander. Add the beets and mix well. Place the beets on a large piece of aluminum foil and wrap tightly, ensuring that they stay in a single layer. Make sure the package is tightly closed to keep the steam inside as the beets cook. (If you are using different colors of beets, wrap each color separately.)
2. Discard any remaining marinade. Place the foil packets on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 50 minutes, until the beets are cooked through. Beets are cooked through when they are easily pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Remove the beets from the foil. You will notice that the skin peels off very easily with your fingers or a paring knife. The spice marinade may have concentrated itself on parts of a beet. If so, gently scrape it off. Cut the beets in wedges and arrange on a plate.
4. Place all the dressing ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine. If you prefer a thinner dressing, you can add a little water, but do not add any oil to this dressing. Place the beets on a serving platter and spoon on the dressing. Drizzle a bit, wait a few minutes, and then drizzle some more. The beets will absorb the dressing. Serve immediately.
Note: Take my word for it — if you want to increase the flavor of any dish that calls for ground coriander, grind it fresh. It will take you under 3 minutes to do so and it will add 200 times the flavor of store-bought ground coriander. In my cooking classes, this is one ingredient that I grind in front of my students to show them the difference. They always, without exception, gasp when they smell the lemony fragrance of freshly ground coriander seeds.