I’m not big on cookbooks. I know, I know, it’s the same complaint we all have. I love looking through them, and I daydream about having bookcases filled with cookbooks. But those daydreams generally go like this: leisurely flipping through a couple of cookbooks while enjoying a late morning cup of coffee and Tartine croissant, and then casually spending the rest of the day shopping for and cooking whatever I picked out that morning, then upon serving the meal to friends and loved ones, having it gushed over and praised to high heavens during a cozy family meal. Not exactly reality.
The reality is that when I check out a cookbook from the library or actually purchase one and bring it home, I rarely make it beyond flipping through the pages and reading the headnotes. I’ve been known to make a list of the recipes that look good and copy down ingredient lists and instructions in shorthand out of library books, usually when the book is already 2 or 3 days past due and I’m feeling guilty about not cooking from the book in the last 3 weeks, let alone returning it on time. Or when I’m feeling guilty about the books I’ve bought and never actually cooked from, I’ll bust out the little sticky flags and mark what looks good- but I usually don’t try more than one or two recipes, even if they’re great.
What’s the deal? I’ve decided I’m stuck in a vicious cycle, one that most of us find ourselves in now and then: kitchen comfort. We become content with the repertoire of meals we’ve amassed that not only fall within our resource constraints but that our family will readily eat. We’re secure in the same list of the ingredients to add to the unwritten weekly shopping list, the ability to fall-back on old favorites on a Wednesday night when you walk in the door late and everybody’s hungry already. Cooking becomes easy. As the wife of a picky eater and a woman who refuses to eat most prepackaged and processed “foods,” I’ve struggled over the last few years to expand my List of Acceptable and Realistic Suppers. Picking up a cookbook and flipping to a new recipe might entail ingredients I don’t already have in the cupboards or that we won’t eat, or flavors that we might not like. I’ve become lethargic, and who wants to cook when the words “supper” and “boring” become synonyms?
So in this context of boredom and hesitance, thank goodness somebody mentioned Julie Sahni. Seriously. I’ve been hugely lacking in cooking inspiration and motivation, and this woman delivered exactly the swift kick in the you-know-what that I needed. I picked up Classic Indian Cooking at the library last week and spent a few evenings flipping through the pages, trying to pick out a recipe or two to try over the weekend. I wanted to stick with something fairly basic, which is always hard to discern from looking at ingredient lists for most Indian cooking – so many spices and aromatics! The first one I picked was Gosht Kari, or meat curry, which boasts a relatively short list of ingredients, all things I knew I could easily get. I made a quick trip for ground coriander and fresh cilantro, but otherwise had the rest of the ingredients already.
The recipe starts with familiar actions: browning of beef, chopping of onions, mincing ginger and garlic. “I can handle this,” I told myself, feeling a boost of confidence at the rhythms of the familiar. As onions turned from white to pale to golden, I measured out fragrant spices. As the dish started to come together, the smell was almost breathtaking. These were smells that I’d never had coming from my own kitchen! While the braise simmered on the stovetop, I peeled potatoes, sipped a glass of wine, soaked the rice. Before I even tasted it, I knew it was going to be amazing. The mix of confidence and novelty was coursing through me. I was excited. And better yet, I was salivating. It smelled delicious.
It also didn’t hurt that the meal was utterly fantastic. Warm and hearty textures and a complex flavor profile. I had to have more. The next day, I flipped open the book again and settled on Mughalai Korma, or Moghual braised chicken, with saag to accompany (pictured above). The mix of ginger, cardamom, cloves, and coriander in the chicken sounded intriguing and delicious. Again the process felt comfortable, and again the smells from stovetop were phenomenal. It goes without saying that all three dishes were great. Honestly, the saag was my least favorite; I’m not a huge fan of cooked spinach, but the combo of cumin seed and garam masala was quite nice, and the potatoes were decadent. In any case, two out of three keepers is hardly failure! Both the chicken and the beef dishes will be made again in very soon order, and this book is going to be added to my bookshelf pronto… only this time, I don’t intend to ignore it.
Julie Sahni’s Gosht Kari
very barely adapted from Classic Indian Cooking
Serves 6 as a main dish with rice, or 8 with side dishes
8 tablespoons ghee
3 pounds boneless beef or lamb, trimmed well and cut into 1-inch cubes
2-3 meaty beef or lamb bones (I used the bones I cut out of my roast along with an oxtail)
4 small onions or 2 large onions (about 4 cups chopped)
4 cloves garlic (about 4 teaspoons minced)
3-4 inches fresh ginger (about 3 tablespoons minced)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1-15 oz. can diced tomatoes, or 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 pound of potatoes, about 4 medium-sized
chopped cilantro for serving
Place a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-high heat with 4 tablespoons of ghee. While the oil is heating, pat the meat cubes dry to help browning. Once the oil is very hot, brown some of the meat cubes, being careful not to crowd the meat (this will cause steaming instead of browning). Brown the meat in batches, removing browned meat to a plate with a slotted utensil. Once the meat is browned, add the bones to the pot and lightly brown them as well, then place them on the plate with the meat. While browning the meat, finely chop the onions.
Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of ghee to the pot and scrape the bottom to release the stuck on bits of meat. Add the onions and brown them, stirring frequently to avoid burning and sticking. While browning the onions, mince or grate the garlic and the ginger, and measure out the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and red pepper into small bowl. Put a kettle with about 5 cups of water on to boil.
When the onions are a dark golden brown, add the garlic and ginger and fry for a minute, stirring almost constantly. Add the spices and continue to fry and stir vigorously for about 30 seconds. Return the browned meat and the bones to the pot, pouring in any juice that the meat had released onto the plate. Also add the tomatoes, salt, and 4 cups of boiling water; stir to combine. Bring to a boil; then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally
While the dish is simmering, peel the potatoes and cut into quarter (for medium potatoes), or approximately 2 x 3 inch pieces. (If serving with rice and forgoing the resting time, this is also a good time to rinse/soak your rice.) After 90 minutes, add the potatoes and stir; then recover and continue to simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes and meat are both tender. Julie says to let the dish rest for at least 30 minutes but preferably 2 hours; I was starving by the time it was ready and let it rest for a mere 15 minutes and it was fantastic as-is. Before serving, remove the bones and check for salt, then reheat to a simmer. Serve with rice and/or bread and chopped cilantro. Leftovers are even better in the following days, though Julie suggests freezing if not eating within 3 days in the refrigerator.