These pictures might look strange when viewing this blog in Internet Explorer. I recommend using Firefox.
Cooking spices before everything else
When you watch an Indian chef, one of the first things you might notice is that they will start throwing spices into a pan full of hot oil, willy-nilly, before adding anything else to the pot. They COOK spices before cooking the rest of the food. The spices will roast in a dry pan, or crackle in oil, long before the other ingredients are tossed in.
One of the hardest things to do when learning to cook with spices is learning to trust yourself to cook the spices adequately. Many spices, like turmeric and cumin, are so much better after having been cooked in oil, that you really do have to heat them for a while to bring out their goodness. This can be tough to remember when you are cooking them, though – the coriander starts smoking a bit in the cooking oil, and the panic sets in (made worse, of course, when you have an overly sensitive smoke detector).
These need to be cooked
I still have to force myself to let spices cook long enough before adding other ingredients. I’ll be standing there, watching the cardamom bubble menacingly in the vegetable oil, thinking, “Any minute now, this is going to spontaneously combust.” I’ll be holding a strainer full of spinach, eying the spices as they jump around in the pan, willing myself to wait, just a bit longer, before tossing the vegetables in the pot.
My fiance, who (to be fair) has a good 8 years on me in terms of cooking experience, is an old hand at cooking spices. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that he did spend a good portion of his childhood in India and Bangladesh (and Iran, and Thailand). So for him, cooking spices good and long before adding onions or tomatoes (the heart of many north Indian curry dishes), is second nature. For me, it’s a battle of will.
Tonight, I challenged the fiance to make dinner using only what we had in the house, which was paltry. We didn’t have any onions or tomatoes, for instance, but had plenty of spices (of course), some frozen spinach, and a pound of shelled clam meat from the Korean store that had been sitting in our freezer for a couple of months. Truth be told, I think we were kind of scared of the clams. But anyway, we managed to scrounge up two decent curry dishes (clam curry and my version of a dry-cooked saag, minus paneer) without going to the supermarket.
This wasn’t a noble challenge of any kind. I just really didn’t want to go to the supermarket at 9PM to get onions.
Heating the oil
Step one is heating the oil. The second step to is begin adding spices to the hot oil, and allowing the spices to cook without allowing them to scald. A little burning is OK.
Adding the first spices
My fiance allows the oil to heat and carefully adds the remaining spices. I believe in the photo below, we’re talking about panch phoran, lemongrass, bay leaves, cumin, chile, and green cardamom.
Chile, panch phoran, lemon grass, bay leaf, green cardamom, vegetable oil
Whole seeds and leaves go in first. Next up is lime leaves, curry leaves, and turmeric powder.
Turmeric is a tricky spice – it really has to be cooked adequately in order to get its medicinal flavor out. There are few other spices that are as displeasing undercooked as turmeric.
Cooking powdered turmeric
After that come all of the other powdered spices. Garam masala, cumin, coriander, and amchur powder.
Cooking ground spices
“OK,” you are probably thinking, “add the damn clams already.” Ha. Hardly. First, my fiance will add a pinch of salt. I asked him to explain the reasoning behind this, and then I forgot what he said because I was drinking a glass of wine and there was a Phil Collins song playing in the background.
Next comes ground ginger and garlic. At this point, I believe that the heat was reduced. Garlic does have a tendency to scald, and the burnt sugars in garlic don’t make for good eats.
Cooking ginger and garlic on lower heat
Next, all of the spices are cooked on medium low and stirred. This is the point where I just about lose my mind from impatience, which is why I am not the one cooking the clams. Check out the crazy stirring action there.
Takin' our sweet time, cooking spices
OK, now, FINALLY, the clams are added to the mix.
Clams, like, after 15 minutes of cooking spices
The clams had arrived at our house pre-shelled and frozen, which is the only way to buy them, frankly. Much less sandy this way. Before adding them to the pot, the clams were soaked in water with a teaspoon of turmeric. Turmeric is an amazing disinfectant – it kills bacteria and removes fishy smells. It is commonly used to wash seafood in Bangladesh.
Letting the clams bask in the spicy oil
I didn’t get a single bite of sand the entire night, but my man did get a couple grains in there. I don’t know why karma sucks so much – he did all the cooking, it seems like he should have gotten the better bites of clam curry.
Speaking of better bites, how good/perverted does this look?
Bite of clam curry
Yummers, right? Well, it totally was.We did add a couple tablespoons of yogurt at the end for a bit of creaminess, and I talked my fiance into including a tablespoon of tamarind paste, as well – the dish lacked a certain je nais se quois, and the fiance claimed it was the lack of onions (whatever, YOU go run to the grocery store at 9PM by yourself, then), but I think the tamarind did a nice job replacing that loss of sweetness.
My saag dish turned out not too bad, as well, which is saying something, because I can ruin a saag dish like no one’s business.
My wrist isn't really that fat. I'm moving, OK? It's the movement.
So, dinner was a relative success – I’ll be honest, it was delicious. We skipped rice or bread (both of us are learning to but back on carbohydrates, so we’ve learned to just enjoy dishes that we make without the added calories – although I do miss naan sometimes).
Totally delicious, but small portions, because of my fat wrist