Monday, July 05, 2010

Naan desu ka?

For Independence Day, I wanted to depart a little from the typical fried chicken-potato salad fare and still stay within the same ballpark in terms of ingredients. The outcome was tandoori murghi (without the tandoor), a cooling raita salad, a spinach-potato curry, a chickpea (garbanzo bean) curry, mango-date chutney, and garlic naan, with not-too-sweet lassi to wash it down.
This menu has several advantages. First, it’s not hard to make if you have the right spices. Second, it is loaded with a variety of healthy veggies, as well as healthy protein. And maybe first again, it tastes great, and is well worth the advance prep (Most of the menu benefits from overnight marination.). The leftover chicken (if there is any) can be stored in the fridge, and the raita is like a salad that goes well with other summer fare such as hamburgers and hot dogs.
Familiar elements in this little menu are yogurt, lemon juice, cilantro, and cumin, onion, cardamom, garlic and ginger and other spices. From what I’ve learned from Indian friends, the blend of spices is a regional and often personal choice, and most cooks blend their own masala from different proportions of generally the same spices. The presence of tomatoes is also an option.
Tandoori chicken is basically barbecued chicken. A tandoor is a deep clay-brick-lined oven used in India to make naan (a flat bread) and skewered meats such as chunks of lamb or lamb sausage formed around long metal skewers and hung over the coals. The use of the tandoor for things other than bread seems to be a fairly recent (1947, according to some usually reliable sources) culinary device, so to speak. And because of the way it’s made, even without the traditional tandoor oven, it is tasty and juicy. If you’ve had dry tandoori chicken before, don’t be put off about trying this at home. Some Indian restaurants make up a big batch of tandoori chicken in advance and reheat it, which naturally makes it dry. What you make at home is almost certain to be better!
I won’t give the recipes here, but in the photos here, you can see that I used chunks of chicken breast. It’s best to use a cut-up whole chicken, skinned but with the bone in and stripped of fat. The important thing is to poke each piece of chicken with a fork in several places, deep, and to make slits around the chicken pieces. These operations help the marinade penetrate into the meat for that spicy, juicy quality it should have. The base for the marinade involves a masala, or blend of spices, dominated by cayenne pepper. For a typical three-pound chicken, I’d say the spice blend might be this:
3 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp ground clove
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt
To this spice blend, add the juice of two lemons, several cloves of minced garlic, 1 Tbsp. crushed fresh ginger, and ½ cup of plain (unsweetened) yogurt.
Mix this marinade until it is a nice even hot-pink color, then add the chicken pieces, rubbing the marinade into each piece. Place the pieces in a big zip-lock freezer bag, pour in the marinade, and seal the bag, letting out as much of the air as possible. Place the sealed bag in a bowl (just in case it isn’t completely sealed), and refrigerate it at least overnight.
The raita is simply a combination of diced cucumber, diced red (actually purple) onion, diced tomato, and chopped cilantro, mixed with a dressing of yogurt, cumin, a little lemon juice and a dash of salt. Blend all this together in a bowl, cover the bowl tightly and put it in the fridge with the chicken. If you can’t do all this a day ahead, at least marinate for an hour before serving. Raita is a necessary companion to a curry meal because the yogurt helps calm the “hotness” of curries.
My curries of choice were a spinach-potato thing called aloo palak, and a chickpea curry.
The mango chutney involves a ripe mango (The big Mexican variety are great for this), a half-dozen pitted dates, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar, ¼ cup brown sugar, half a red onion (the other half of the onion used to make the raita), ½ tsp. brown mustard, 1 tsp. cardamom, ½ tsp. cinnamon, and ½ tsp. ground clove. Cut the mango into thumb-sized pieces, dice the dates and onion, and blend everything together in a bowl, cover and put in the fridge beside the chicken and the raita.
The other seemingly fancy (but quite easy) element of the menu is naan. Naan is best baked against the side of a real tandoor, but you can fake it like I did, even in an ordinary electric oven. The trick is to find a good flat stone. I’m right beside the river, so that was easy, and I put it back when I finished (recycling stones is easy). The rock should be at least as big as a piece of pita bread, which is about the size your finished naan will be).
Preheat the oven to just short of broiling. This is about 500F in most ovens. Place the stone on the bottom rack of the oven at least 20 minutes before you’re ready to actually start baking.
The ingredients are 2 cups all-purpose flour, a packet of dry yeast, 1 Tbsp. sugar, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, a pinch of salt, ½ tsp. baking powder, ½ cup of warm water, and 3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, blend well, add the oil and yogurt and mix all. Separately, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it sit for 2 minutes before blending into the other ingredients. You may need to add a bit of flour during kneading to get the right consistency, just a little bit sticky, but not too dry. Cover the bowl and let it sit for about four hours. Knead the dough again for a few minutes, then divide it into six parts (You can always freeze what you don’t use.)
Shape the dough segments into balls, sprinkled with flour, and knead in the chopped garlic. (for variety, you could also get fancy and use cilantro, mustard seeds, raisins, almonds or pistachios.)
With a rolling pin, shape the balls of dough into somewhat round pieces (a little long on one end makes it look more authentic) about a half-inch thick. Carefully stretch the dough over the stone and let it bake about three minutes. A baked naan will puff up in places. Remove from the oven and baste with melted butter or olive oil. The baked pieces can be kept warm in foil on the top of the stove until you’re done.
Naan is a great tool for scooping up the curry.
Lassi is a refreshing yogurt-based drink that comes out much like buttermilk. I made sweet lassi with ½ cup of plain yogurt and a cup of cold water, a sprinkle of cumin and a squirt of honey. Serve with ice! As with the other recipes, these amounts are approximate. I have never been able to drink just one.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Suki na Mono

I can't say that I particularly miss Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain most familiar for its gyudon (stewed beef and onion, mostly, atop a bowl of white rice). But there is something nostalgic about being far from something so familiar. (When I was in Tokyo, I sometimes got similar cravings for Spam.)
Anyway, my hunger was for that familiar taste, with something more substantial in the way of flavors. I can't give a recipe, exactly, because the quantities are more a matter of taste than chemistry. But it begins with thin-sliced beef. It's not so easy to ask a supermarket butcher to basically ruin his lunchmeat-slicing machine by making 1/16-inch slices of sirloin, so I made do with prepackaged carne insalata beef, then sliced it thin myself at home. Another way around it is to buy sirloin, chill it to near-freezing, and slice it thin with a very sharp knife. The rest of the recipe is sweet onion (tama negi), scallions (naga negi), ginger (shoga), thin-sliced bell peppers, garlic, sesame oil, toasted sesame seed, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake, and corn starch.
Slice half of a medium sized onion thin, slice the scallions diagonally, thin-slice the peppers and ginger, chop the garlic, and marinate the beef, onions, garlic and ginger in a combination of the sesame oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake and corn starch. Drain the liquid and stir-fry the beef-onion-ginger combination on high heat to brown. Remove it back to the liquid. Wipe the wok or fry pan and stir-fry the peppers, then add the cooked meat-onion combination with the remaining juice. stir to thicken the sauce, then remove to serve over a bowl of rice. I use a combination of white and brown Japonica (short grain), but whatever rice you use, steam it with a quarter-cup of sake for outstanding flavor.
Garnish the bowl with some fresh cilantro and wash down with a beverage of your choice. This probably won't put Yoshinoya out of business, but it sure satisfies that craving for gyudon!
Gyudon has its roots in sukiyaki, a relatively familiar treat of beef (usually) and vegetables cooked at the table. It's hard not to think of Kyu Sakamoto's 1963 hit known outside Japan as "Sukiyaki," although the song had nothing to do with food. In fact, the song, which was the only Japanese-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100 in that year, is actually titled Ue o Muite Aruko (I'll Look Up When I Walk), which I guess has a hint of nostalgia in it as well. The sense of the song is that the guy singing holds his head up when he walks so his tears won't fall so fast. As happy as it may seem to those familiar with the original, and seeing Sakamoto smile while singing it, it's kind of a bittersweet feel-good song.
In the 1960s, Japan was finally emerging from its post-World War II trauma to the point many families were able to at least aspire to, if not yet own, the "Three Cs," (car, cooler -- air conditioner -- and color TV). Beef, for years an unaffordable luxury, was again within reach of most households, and sukiyaki was something a typical Japanese family could treat itself with.
So, for the poor salary-droid oyaji who drink themselves past the last train, the familiar orange Yoshinoya sign, usually near train stations (Yoshinoya took over most of the Dunkin Donuts chain's locations when that franchise went belly-up in the 1990s), gyudon has a nostalgic aspect well beyond its ability to take the edge off a night of too much sake.