Ringing in the New Year with Home Cooked Indian Food

By on 7 January, 2014 in Cooking, Food, Natilee McGruder with 2 Comments

As we step into 2014, many of us have pledged (as we do every year) to focus on improving our health. Generally, we resolve to change our diet and exercise habits. While I certainly don’t begrudge anyone setting a goal and working towards it, my sense is that longer lasting changes tend to be ones that are easy to stick to by. One way to make change easy is to create a habit like cooking most of the meals you and your family eat. I have always enjoyed eating delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes, but since becoming a regular at Veg Out Montgomery, a monthly plant-based potluck at the Hampstead Farm, I have been more inspired as a meat eater to become less meat-centric in the way that I plan meals and cook for the week.

While we may have a burgeoning plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) scene, Montgomery is not generally known for its Indian food. Nearby Birmingham and Atlanta have a lot more options, but we do have two restaurants: Taste of India, off Chantilly Parkway on Minnie Brown Road near East Chase, and the re-opened India Palace on Vaughn Road.

All the home cooks will be happy to know that we also have a store called Indian Spices, which is tucked away in a shopping center across from the Dillard’s side of the Eastdale Mall. This family owned and operated store is stocked with essential spices, flours, lentils, mixes and frozen veggies plus fresh veggies on Thursdays. The owner, Ram, is happy to help customers find what they need to complete a recipe or for advice on a hard-to-find spice. Don’t know your chhoti from your moti? Check out this fantastic glossary that you can take with you to the store.

Cooking at home is a pleasurable and affordable way to experience new foods. It is also an opportunity for you to have creative and dietary control over what you eat this year. Don’t let a lack of familiarity with Indian food or spices get in your way of creating some amazing flavors with some often-uninspiring staples like potatoes and cauliflower. These will make you wonder why you thought you needed the meat. You don’t need to immediately go out and buy 30 spices or feel like you are doomed to nothing but curry if you “hate” curry. Pick a simple dish with some ingredients you understand (like lentils or veggies) to learn the basics of the flavors and then adjust to suit your tastes.

You can transport your taste buds to India by taking a few basics you likely have on hand like onions, garlic, paprika, pepper and cumin. Introduce a bit at a time some newcomers like garam masala (an essential spice blend that includes cardamom and cloves), tumeric (strong immune boosting and anti-inflammatory properties), and fresh ginger or ginger-garlic paste (an essential base in Indian food). One secret to the dynamic flavor of Indian food is “blooming” spices, where you gently sauté spices with low to medium heat until the essential oils in the spices release their fragrance and potency.

I think the true secret to becoming a great home cook is not being afraid to buck tradition and try it your way. Out of your many failures will come the tried and true favorite recipes that you can whip up on a harried Monday for dinner or take to the potluck to impress all your friends. Pro-tip: Always keep your essentials like chopped garlic, ginger root and peppers in a plastic baggie in the freezer for easy recipe making on the fly.

Below are a two criminally simple but delicious Indian inspired recipes that I enjoy making and eating to get you started. Good luck and be kind to your body and nourish your mind in 2014!

Natilee’s Smoky-Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes (serves 2-4)

Instant crowd pleaser that even kids and grandmas who hate sweet potatoes will love if you adjust the spice levels accordingly.

Ingredients:

  • two medium sweet potatoes
  • coconut oil
  • cumin to taste (2 teaspoons)
  • cayenne or chipotle powder (1-2 teaspoons to taste) or sub Paprika for no heat
  • garlic powder (1 teaspoon)
  • sea salt (2 teaspoons)
  • pepper (2 teaspoons)
  • optional: ginger powder, cardamom, cinnamon (1 teaspoon)

Pre-heat your oven to 375 F. Scrub, rinse and pat dry your potatoes. Combine your dry spices in a small dish and set to the side. Feel free to get creative with some cinnamon, cardamom or ginger in your spice mix for a different flavor profile. Chop them (peeled or unpeeled as you like it) so that they are roughly the same size to ensure even cooking. You can do medallions, diced or sliced, just stay consistent. Place your chopped potatoes into a bowl and drizzle 2 tablespoons of melted coconut oil. Then sprinkle on the spices, stirring together to get a good coat on all the potatoes. Taste the spice rub and make sure it is to your liking. Adjust as necessary. Place the pieces flat on a greased baking sheet – be sure to give each piece a little room. Bake for about 25-30 minutes and then flip. Keep an eye on those babies for the last 10-20 minutes because they can burn in a heartbeat. The potatoes should be crispy on the outside and soft and warm inside. Remove from the pan and serve immediately if you haven’t eaten them all.

Frozen Veggie Indian Delight (serves 4)

This dish is so easy, flavorful and adaptable. I love garlic and onions so feel free to lighten up on those if you don’t. To make it more soup or stew-like you can add more tomato juice/paste or some coconut milk. To thicken add some finely chopped sautéed or boiled potatoes. Feel free to add additional veggies, brighten the dish with lime/lemon juice or add some fresh chopped herbs like cilantro or parsley at the end.

Ingredients

  • coconut oil ( 2 teaspoons)
  • 2lb bag of frozen veggies (like a mix of pre-chopped beans, carrot, peas and corn)
  • garam masala (2 teaspoons) You can buy this spice blend whole and grind it or get it pre-ground
  • cayenne pepper (1-2 teaspoons if you like heat sub paprika if not)
  • cumin seeds (1/2 teaspoon)
  • black mustard seed (1/2 teaspoon)
  • tumeric (1 teaspoon)
  • cumin powder (1 teaspoon)
  • onions (1 medium finely chopped)
  • garlic (1/2 head finely chopped)
  • ginger (1 teaspoon chopped)
  • 1 tomato or a can of drained Rotel or ½ cup of salsa if you don’t have fresh on hand
  • sea salt to taste
  • optional: sprinkle with lime/lemon juice or chopped cilantro or parsley at the end or add a cup of fresh or frozen chopped spinach while cooking

Heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat in a large pan (that has a cover) and lightly sauté the cumin and mustard seeds until they sizzle and pop. Once the seeds pop, add the garlic, tumeric and garam masala, cayenne, and cumin powder and stir all together for a minute or so or until you can smell the spices “bloom,” around one minute. Then add the onions and sauté until translucent. Add all the remaining veggies, stir well and cover for 10-15 minutes to allow the frozen veggies to steam and mingle with the spices, stirring occasionally. Cook until veggies are tender and sea salt to taste at the end. Serve by itself, over rice or with quinoa and feel good about the easy, feel-good dish you just made.

Natilee grew up in Montgomery after moving from Dayton, OH with her Air Force family. She is passionate about issues of poverty, education, food justice, conflict resolution, prison reform and actively working towards peace and civic engagement. She has lived in several places, including Ghana and Mexico and she most enjoys backpacking, live music, reading and cooking.

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  1. Nancy Alexander says:

    Natalie, I’m inspired! I’m new to Indian food and really like it but haven’t tried cooking it myself…’till now. Thanks for the recipes.

    • Natilee McGruder says:

      Thanks for the comment Nancy, I’m so glad you’ve been inspired–that’s what it’s all about. I’d love to hear how what you make turns out!

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