Sunday, July 31, 2011

TBIR: India

One of my biggest gripes with this lousy town that the Navy sent us to is that there's very little ethnic food, and absolutely no Indian food. None. I'd have to drive three hours to San Antonio to satisfy my cravings. Because of this, I'm really interested in learning to cook my own, but also really intimidated by it. I'm not sure why it makes me so uncomfortable. Cooking is cooking. You go through the same motions to add spice, regardless of which spices you're using. I guess I'm just afraid that it won't taste right, and because the spices aren't flavors that I'm used to cooking with, I won't be able to fix it. Practice is the only solution to that particular problem, so I decided to jump in head first and cook one of my very favorite things in the world: Saag Paneer, aka Fresh Cheese with Spinach Sauce (pg 452). Actually, in the book, the Indian name for the dish is written in teeny letters beneath the English translation, but that didn't seem right to me. I also made Naan, aka Indian-Style Flatbread (pg 440). In combination, these two basic dishes took me a long time to make.

First up, the naan. I've been making bread and bagels on a weekly basis for the past few months, so the idea of kneading dough and letting it rise and all that jazz doesn't intimidate me nearly as much as it used to. I feel like I've gotten pretty good at using a recipe's description to get the right texture/look of the dough. Not this time. I suspect that the naan dough was not as it should be, but I can't really say, because the book abandoned me, in terms of what the dough should look like when it's ready. The reason I think there's a problem was that one step is to roll the dough into balls. In my experience, you need a dough with some structure to do this. This was a sticky, wet mess, impossible to roll. I added flour and made it work, but I'm not 100% sure it's right.

The instructions say to heat up a heavy pan super-hot, and then throw the flattened dough on, flipping it now and then, until the bottom is "speckled and deep golden brown in spots." Ummm. Yeah. These things burned SO fast. My pan is a mess.

This bread is in the right spirit as naan. It doesn't taste like what you get in a restaurant, though. There was something harsh about the flavor, which I think is due to the burned bits. As Matt said, "When it's cooked in a kiln, the burned bits taste good. When it's cooked in our pan, it just tastes burned." Oh well, it was a good first effort, and certainly better than the pre-made naan that we made the mistake of buying in the supermarket once. Shudder.

Conclusion: Just okay. It needs some work.

Now, on to the main event. The hardest part about the saag paneer was that you make your own cheese. WHAT??? It wasn't really that hard. I just felt very unsure of myself the whole time. All you do is boil milk and salt, then add vinegar until it curdles. Pour it into cheesecloth and let it drain in a colander for a bit. Twist the ends of the cheesecloth to release as much moisture as possible, then put the packet in between two plates and balance a dutch oven on it. Whaaaaaaaaaaat? You know how hard it is to balance a dutch oven on a rickety structure? Mine and Matt's combined skills couldn't make it work, so I ditched the oval dutch oven and used a bag of flour instead. After a half hour under pressure, it's cheese! It tasted like a solid, dry ricotta.
I have named my cheese Sebastian.
The sauce was easy to make. It's really just vegetables (onion, spinach, tomato) cooked with spices in water, then cooked down. Puree 1/3rd of the vegetable mixture with more water, add the puree back to the pan, and cook it down again. Gently fold in cubes of your homemade cheese. YUM.

If I served this with rice instead of the naan, (and if our damn AC didn't stop working mid-preparation) the whole production would have been much less stressful. Not the best Indian food I've ever had, but I'm proud of myself.

Conclusion: Liked it. It needs a bit more something, spice-wise, but I'm not sure what.

Oh, and my landlord magically wrangled an HVAC repairman to come out at 8 pm on a Sunday night. Huzzah!


  1. wow very impressed and congratulations with this first effort... did you use a cast iron skillet for the naan?

  2. can be helpful to watch an Indian chef cook

  3. I'm glad your paneer turned out delicious. I know that the version I made used lemon juice as the curdling agent, which gave it a nice flavor. Sorry to hear about the naan. Hopefully the heat will allow you to give it another try. Great post!

  4. I think Sebastian looks incredible! Well done, you've done amazing on this :) I think your ethnic cuisine problem will soon be solved!

  5. Congratulations! Making that meal would have been way out of my comfort zone and you are very brave to have tried it. Although, considering that spinach with cheese is also one of my favorite Indian dishes I should possibly follow your lead and try to make it.

  6. I love Indian food too, and those are 2 of my favourite dishes! I've made them and they were a lot of work. Great job, especially without AC!