Thursday, March 24, 2011

Suck it Up: Selecting Spices

I’m a chronic mover. The symptoms can be rough: the backaches, the moaning friends, the odd-shaped bruises from navigating furniture through preposterous New York City apartments. But more than the physical symptoms, moving takes an emotional toll. Specifically, the agonizing guilt as I contemplate how much crap I own, leading to fear that some day TLC producers will dramatically remove my mummified remains from beneath a mountain of impractical shoes and disintegrating New Yorkers, before cuing to a Toddlers and Tiaras promo.

Most apartment-dwellers I know have an aversion to collecting crap. So it’s not surprising that many aspiring young cooks have a fear of spices: “They take up too much space! I don’t know what I’ll do with them! They seem so exotic and varied and how will I ever choose?!”

The Clothed Cook has a few words of wisdom for you: Suck it up. You can keep your sparse spice cabinet and flat-flavored food. Or you can create magical delights that will make your guests go, “What is that?” I’ll take the latter, even if it means an extra armload on moving day. 

I’d never leave any of my spices behind (except maybe tarragon...grody). But if forced to choose, I could get pretty far with just the following:
  • Cumin
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Curry powder blend
  • Cinnamon
Ground ginger powder and dried herbs (especially oregano and cilantro) get a lot of play, but usually because I don’t have fresh on hand.

Those four spices will open up a world of recipes you could never attempt with seasoning and garlic powder alone.The Tarka Dal recipe below has more, but I’ve jotted down thoughts on where you can scrimp in the Notes for the Naked. I saw this recipe on the Cooking Channel, and it looked so tasty that I bounded over to my kitchen and whipped it up right there. The pureed garlic-tomato mixture infuses the sauce with flavor, and the ginger matchsticks are a tasty surprise every few bites. And, of course, the spices turn this stew from standard to sublime.

I may die trapped beneath all my crap, but at least I’ll be well-fed.

Tarka White Bean
Modified from Indian Food Made Easy

9 ounces dried white beans + ~1.75 pints water, or 1 can of beans, drained
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cumin powder
1 small onion, chopped
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
A shake of red pepper flakes (optional)
1 (3/4-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin strips
3-5 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
3 tomatoes (not plum or cherry, but any other kind), chopped
2 teaspoon curry powder
3/4 teaspoon garam masala
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Squeeze of lemon juice
My stick blender, Pope Julius. By far my
most-used kitchen gadget.

  • If you’re using canned beans, skip to the next step. For dried beans: Preheat an oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour dry white beans (no soak necessary) into a 3-qt. Dutch oven or any oven-safe pan. Add enough cool water to the pot to cover 1 inch above the beans. Securely place the lid on the Dutch oven or wrap the top in aluminum foil. Bake the beans for 75 minutes in the oven. After 75 minutes, remove, stir them, and check their tenderness. If they’re not done, cook for longer, making sure there’s enough water to cover them.
  • Meanwhile, heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat. Add the cumin and fry for 20 to 30 seconds. Add the onion, ginger, and pepper flakes if you're using them, and fry for 4 to 5 minutes, or until golden brown.
  • Blend the garlic and tomatoes to a puree in a food processor or blender. Add the puree to the pan, and stir well to combine. Add the curry powder, garam masala if you have it, cayenne, and 3 1/2 ounces of water to the pan, and stir well to combine. Season the mixture with salt, to taste, and simmer over a medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the oil from the sauce has risen to the surface of the sauce.
  • Add the beans to the sauce, and stir well, adding more water as necessary, to loosen the mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil, and season, to taste, with salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in the chopped cilantro and lemon juice just before serving.

Notes for the Naked:
  • Dried beans are less mushy and generally tastier than canned, but way more inconvenient. Unless you've got an afternoon, go with canned.
  • As the author of the original recipe, Anjum Anand, notes, plum tomatoes are too sweet for this recipe. Normal supermarket tomatoes work fine here. I think fresh tastes better, but canned chopped or crushed tomatoes should be OK, too.
  • A note on the spices: garam masala is a spice mix with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, etc. If you’re trying to reduce your spice purchases, you can just up your dose of curry powder by another ¾ teaspoon. I skipped the turmeric and coriander from the original recipe because my curry powder has tons of those two ingredients.
  • I’ve also made this recipe with dal (dried yellow split peas), but actually prefer the creamier white beans here. Feel free to use whatever you’ve got, though—lentils and chickpeas would also work well.

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