Indian food (more specifically Punjabi, I suppose, since that is what is usually served in restaurants around here) is one of my absolute favorite styles of cuisine. The complex flavors and creamy sauces always seem festive and special to me. I actually remember the first time I came to the realization that, for many years there have been people in India who eat this food every day, not just as a special treat! That definitely took some time for me to wrap my brain around. (I suppose they, in turn, may be amazed to learn that some people grow up eating fish and potatoes and meat and gravy every day)
Now, I think cooking Indian food well may require having at least some genetic ties to South Asia. Even if you follow a recipe to the letter, the curries and tikka masalas and kormas just never seem to come out the way they do in a good Indian restaurant. I think I’ve only ever made two curries that turned out to my liking (on the other hand, I perennially add a tsp. of curry powder to the mayonnaise that I put in tuna or chicken salad, and that turns out well every time! Though, it turns out curry powder isn’t even really technically Indian.)
Probably the secrets of true Indian cooking have to be learned in person from your grandmother, or determined through lots of trial and error – which, if nothing else, is usually/hopefully pretty tasty error. However, whether or not I ever master the art of Indian cooking, I have found some of the techniques and spicing extremely useful in everyday cooking. For example, Indian dishes frequently call for you to add the spices to the pan early with the onions and garlic, to toast them and release extra depth of flavor before you add any other ingredients. This technique can work wonders with all the typically South Asian, and Middle Eastern, spices. The “c” spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne (ground red pepper), curry powder; and also turmeric, mustard seeds, and Indian spice blends like garam masala. Which brings me to another quick and simple method of cooking random greens. My friend Erik told me recently that this is the way he almost always prepares his leafies; it sounds like he and his fiancée Hillary have been making their way through bushels of kale this summer and have yet to get sick of it.
Start with your bunch of leaves, wash and shake them off – no need to dry them well – and then coarsely chop them, discarding the bottoms of the stems. I usually just take the whole bunch of greens, lay them down in a pile on my cutting board aligned so that all the stems are toward the bottom, and then I cut them all at once in big chopping motions. It’s really fast, and makes the task of chopping significantly less daunting than if you try to deal with each plant individually. Peel and slice one onion and a couple cloves of garlic (if you have some ginger you can peel and mince, you can use a tsp. of that too). Heat a frying pan to medium/med-high, add at least a Tablespoon of oil or butter, then add the onion and garlic and stir. Let this cook for just a couple of minutes until it is starting to soften, then add about a teaspoon of coriander, cumin and turmeric. Stir, and allow to cook for another minute or so to release the aromas. Next, toss your chopped greens on top, and stir it all together. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, depending on how wilted you like your greens. If it seems really dry while you cook it, you might need to add a Tablespoon of water. Stir in about ½-3/4 tsp. of salt as the greens wilt (add more at the table if you’re a salt-o-phile, like me!). When they’re all wilted and spice coated, they’re ready to serve.
This technique and spice combo definitely does not need to be limited to leafy greens, they just happen to be one of the vegetables I have around all the time in the summer and fall because I do make an effort to get my veggies from local farms as much as possible. More traditionally Indian would be to use cauliflower that has been lightly steamed and sliced first, or potatoes that have been cubed and boiled first so they’re soft. And, no need to stop there; try zucchini, or sliced carrots, or green beans. Any of these make a lovely side dish, or stir in a can of chickpeas toward the end of cooking the veggies (drain the chickpeas first, but add another Tbs. or so of water to the veggies as you stir the chickpeas in to help the spices spread more easily. You may also want to use at least an extra half tsp. of each spice at the beginning for more flavor), heat them through, and you’ll have a whole meal!