Using what's locally grown and of the season while adding lots of interest with spices from around the world is a way of cooking that appeals to me. In his new book Masala Farm of which I received a review copy, Suvir Saran's cooking style is just that. He looks to add masala, "a combination of ups and downs, bitterness, spice, and sweetness," to every day. He and his partner, Charlie Burd, bought a farm in upstate New York where they raise several breeds of chickens, goats, sheep, geese, and ducks, and here, the meals they prepare are inspired by the time of year, what's available, and what's possible on a given day on the farm. There are charming stories about their animals, how they chose them, and how they care for them. And, there are stories about other farms in the area and the locally produced goods available at different times of year. The book takes you through each season with the food and fun from the farm. Some dishes are simple, farmhouse favorites like Cauliflower, Chevre, and Onion Quiche, Rhubarb and Raspberry Cobbler with Creme Fraiche Cream, and Summer Tomato Pie. And, then others are given a twist with added spices like the Sweet and Sour Butternut Squash, Garam Masala Roast Chicken, and Deviled Eggs with Cilantro, Chiles, and Spices. Indian favorites are included too with Bread Pakoras, Peanut Chaat, Farmhouse Chai, and Birbal Kee Khitcheree.
Let me tell you a little about me and Indian food. I love it, but in the past, I was never able to cook it. The few attempts I made resulted in disaster. That was mostly my own fault for probably rushing the process or not being prepared for what I was attempting to make. However, I would like to also lay a little blame on the inability to ever find all the ingredients needed in this town. I can never find fresh curry leaves, in the past I always had to skip at least a few spices when they weren't available locally, and I can't always find the right type of dal for a dish. I was feeling ready for a challenge though, and I really wanted to try making the Khitcheree from the book. I set aside an afternoon to do an ingredient hunt. Thanks to our Savory Spice Shop, I found all the spices needed for this, and they even have dried curry leaves. The only item I wasn't able to locate was split and hulled mung beans. I used yellow split peas instead. This dish involves making a topping of cilantro, ginger, chiles, and lime juice, frying onions for an additional topping, making the spice mix Panch Phoran, cooking the khitcheree itself, and preparing two tempering oils that are added at the end. There were several places where I could have ruined this, but I didn't. And, it was worth every single step.
At last, my run of failed Indian dishes has ended. This is soothing comfort food with the rice, lentils or split peas, and vegetables cooked together, but the flavors also surprise your palate with heat, spice, warmth, freshness, and acidity. Next, I want to try the Farro and Mushroom Burgers with Tomato-Onion-Peanut Chutney, the Shrimp and Sweet Corn Curry, Almost-Flourless Caramel-Lacquered Chocolate-Peanut Torte, and whatever else might add a little masala to my day.
Birbal Kee Khitcheree
Recipes re-printed with publisher's permission
When craving comfort food, I most often dream of khitcheree. The vegetarian one-pot meal of lentils, rice, and vegetables is transported to another dimension via multiple layers of spices—every bite is a new discovery of tastes and textures. The dish includes Panch Phoran, a spice blend of whole cumin, fennel, and the wonderfully exotic, nutty flavor of nigella seeds that are gently fried in ghee or clarified butter with coriander and tomatoes, and then a second boost of spice from a ghee-bloomed blend of more cumin, some cayenne, and oniony asafetida. It is such an incredible dish that there is even a legend behind it: Hundreds of years ago in mid-fourteenth-century India, Birbal, a court official of Emperor Akbar, made a khitcheree that was so enchanting, the emperor decided to make Birbal a Raja king! At our house, we like to say that if it’s good enough for Akbar and Birbal, it’s good enough for you. This dish is so lovely that I often just serve it with nothing else except for some Raita and perhaps crispy papadum on the side. Make the recipe a few times and then begin to play with the flavors and simplify it as you like. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
For the topping:
6 to 8 cups/1.4 to 1.9 L peanut/groundnut oil
1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup/10 g finely chopped fresh cilantro
2-inch/5-cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into very thin matchsticks
1 jalapeño, finely minced (remove the seeds for less heat)
1 tbsp lime juice
For the khitcheree:
1 cup/190 g split and hulled mung dal
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
10 whole green cardamom pods
8 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
2-inch/5cm piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp Panch Phoran (please see separate recipe)
3/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/8 tsp asafetida
1 cup/185 g basmati rice
1/2 medium cauliflower, divided into very small florets
1 medium red potato, cut into 1/2-inch/12-mm pieces
4 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
7 cups/1.65 L water
10-oz/280-g bag frozen peas
For the first tempering oil:
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
1/2 tsp Panch Phoran (please see separate recipe)
1/2 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tsp ground coriander
2 large tomatoes, finely diced
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cups/750 ml water
For the second tempering oil:
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 pinch asafetida
½ tsp Garam Masala (please see separate recipe)
To make the topping:
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot (use enough oil to fill the saucepan to a 2-inch/5-cm depth) over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F/180°C on an instant-read thermometer. Add the onion and fry until crisp and browned, about 2 minutes, turning the onion occasionally. Use a slotted spoon or frying spider to transfer the onion to a paper towel–lined plate and set aside. (The oil can be saved for another use, but first let it cool, then strain it through a fine-mesh sieve into an airtight container.)
In a small bowl stir together the cilantro, ginger, jalapeño, and lime juice together and set aside.
To make the khitcheree:
Place the mung dal in a large frying pan over medium heat and toast it until fragrant and lightly golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the dal to a large plate and set aside.
Place the ghee, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, panch phoran, turmeric, and asafetida into the same pan and roast over medium heat until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Add the rice, toasted dal, cauliflower, potato, and carrots, and cook until the rice becomes translucent and the cauliflower sweats, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Pour in the 7 cups/1.65 L of water, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add the peas, bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
To make the first tempering oil:
Heat the ghee and panch phoran in a large frying pan over medium heat until the cumin in the panch phoran begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and salt, and cook until the onion is browned around the edges and soft, about 10 minutes.
If the onion begins to get too dark or sticks to the bottom of the pan, splash the pan with a bit of water and scrape up the browned bits. Stir in the ground coriander and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and the cayenne and cook until the tomatoes are jammy, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Once the rice and dal are cooked, remove the lid and use a potato masher to smash the mixture until only a few carrots and peas remain whole (remove the whole or large spices while mashing if you like). Stir in the first tempering oil along with the 3 cups/750 ml water. Return to boil and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
To make the second tempering oil: Wipe out the pan from the first tempering oil and heat the ghee for the second tempering oil over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, cayenne, and asafetida, and cook, stirring often, until the cumin begins to brown, about 2 minutes.
Immediately stir it into the rice and dal mixture.
Divide the khitcheree among 6 bowls; top with some of the ginger mixture, a pinch of garam masala, and the fried onions; and serve.
This is a whole-spice blend that is similar to garam masala, except that panch phoran adds texture as well as flavor. While it is most often used whole, panch phoran can be pulverized in a spice grinder or by using a mortar and pestle and added to curries like the Shrimp and Sweet Corn Curry.
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp brown mustard seeds
1 tbsp nigella seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
Mix together and store in an airtight container for up to 1 year. Makes 5 tbsp/25 g.
Garam masala is perhaps the most well-known Indian spice blend (aside from curry powder). It’s a northern spice, used in places like New Delhi and the Northern Plains, where the winters are harsh. The spices used in this mix – cinnamon, cloves, and chiles – have a warming effect, making the addition of garam masala to recipes not just delicious but useful too.
1-inch/2.5-cm piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
4 bay leaves
1/4 cup/4 g cumin seeds
1/3 cup/6 g coriander seeds
6 whole green cardamom pods
2 whole brown cardamom pods
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp whole cloves
1 dried red chile
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground mace
Heat the cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, and chile in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes brown, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.
Transfer the spices to a baking sheet to cool. Once cooled, transfer the spices to a spice grinder, coffee mill, or small food processor, add the nutmeg and mace, and grind to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 months.