Fresh curry leaves. Pomegranate seeds. Turmeric that leaves little trails of neon-yellow dollops on saucers. Brown basmati rice. Fenugreek. Coconut milk-simmered chicken. Cardamom pods.
These have been the flavors of our kitchen this week.
What a feast it has been, thanks to Modern Spice.
You see, Danny and I are still deep in the throes of final edits for the cookbook. We slip into working on our editors’ comments on recipes when Little Bean has gone to bed, after we have eaten our dinner while watching Jeopardy on the couch. (I may have the literature questions, but Danny kicks my butt on geography.)
Our days might look mundane from the outside — reading books to Little Bean, picking up the pile of books that Bean has taken off the shelves to “read” by herself, breakfast lunch and dinner together about the same time every day, trips to the playground, cuddles and wonder at hearing her talk, waiting for naps, a dance party to Caspar Babypants every evening about 6 — but to us they are wild and alive. There is never enough time.
Especially when it comes to editing. We are exhausted. I hunch toward the computer screen late at night, trying to decipher comments through the blue squiggles of tracking changes, then I have to ask Danny, “How long will it take for potatoes to cook until they are fork tender?” Or we wonder together how to best describe the texture of pumpkin soup, or veal stock after it has simmered for six hours. Most evenings we are baking — Asian pear tart, one more time — measuring and writing, comparing notes. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for this chance.
But I do know this: I never had any idea how much work goes into producing a cookbook.
To everyone who has ever written a cookbook? We salute you.
And this work we have been doing has inspired an idea, a new feature here on the site. We’re going to start cooking out of one cookbook each week, to delve into its flavors and make at least 10 recipes to know its rhythms (and whether or not they work). If we love what we make, we’ll recommend it to you.
When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I gave away all my baking books and some of my favorite cookbooks. Erroneously, I believed that I’d have to eat a “special diet” all my life. It only took me a couple of weeks to realize that was ridiculous. But that was after I had kneeled down on the carpet in front of the “special diets” section of the cookbook collection of Queen Anne Books in Seattle, then chose a fistful of cookbooks to take home.
Somehow, I got the message that big, glossy cookbooks were beyond my reach. I thought I had to look for “gluten-free” cookbooks. None of that is true.
Anyone new to this? We want you to know that good food is yours, if you want it.
And those of you reading who can eat anything? We’re sure you need another great cookbook, dog-eared and stained, on your shelf.
Be prepared to have fennel rub and dried red chiles in your kitchen soon.
Monica Bhide, the author of Modern Spice, is a graceful and generous writer. Born in India, she has lived outside of Washington D.C. since the early 1990s. This makes her cooking grounded in both the traditions of India and the United States. Although she has written two cookbooks before this, somehow Modern Spice feels to me like her life’s work. Clearly, she hopes to inspire more of us to cook with Indian spices and flavorings, without the burden of having to cook for days and stick entirely to traditional ways. More than that, however, the book has the urgency of the deeply personal.
As she writes:
“I understand the soul of Indian cuisine; I understand the dishes, their roots, and the richness of history that surrounds the food. It is this knowledge that sets me free and gives me the freedom to play with them, to evolve the dishes. Growing up in the Middle East, I learned authentic Indian dishes from the talented and knowledgeable hands of my father and mother. During frequent visits to India, I moved from my grandmother’s kitchen to those of my mother’s cousins and friends, along the way gathering delightful anecdotes and learning authentic recipes. Fifteen years ago I moved to the United States, and since then Indian cooking that I learned has changed so much. All these experiences are what I am sharing with you in Modern Spice.”
This is what I love in a cookbook — the feeling when you read that you are holding in your hands the best that author could give.
Besides that, all these recipes work. And how.
When I made the red chile, garlic, and basil chicken, Danny and I both wondered if it would work. A pan full of shallots and only 1 1/2 pounds of cubed chicken? But I trusted Monica and made the recipe as written. (Danny has taught me this. Make every recipe once, just as it is written. Only afterwards should you change it.) 20 minutes later, we had a satisfying pile of chicken and chiles, tender shallots, turmeric and basil on top of our steamed basmati rice. “Wow,” Danny kept saying, as he spooned more in his mouth. There were no leftovers.
I loved the pomegranate shrimp, the red seeds dotted against yellow shrimp (turmeric really does stain everything that color), hot with chile flakes and garlic, fresh with curry leaves and coriander. That plate emptied fast too.
There was cilantro-mint chutney (incredible and simple both), roasted spicy fig yogurt (I would eat this for breakfast every morning if I could), butternut squash stew with jaggery (but mine was with palm sugar, since I couldn’t find jaggery anywhere). The whole roast chicken with fenugreek will make you taste roast chicken new.
Mostly, though, I loved the simplest recipes. The brown basmati rice with pine nuts, mint, and pomegranate. And the fennel-red chile dry rub works with everything. Simple, simple — fennel seeds, dried red chiles, peppercorns. Somehow, it manages to smell like Christmas. We patted it on escolar, a firm-fleshed white fish, and ate them up near midnight last week. One of my favorite tastes of the entire time? The roasted cauliflower with the fennel rub. I could have eaten an entire head of it myself. But I saved half for breakfast the next day. Little Bean ate every piece.
That rub won’t last long in this kitchen.
And late at night, after hours of editing, the rice pudding with mango parfait tasted like the sweet release of sleep.
I made the rice pudding after reading Monica’s lyrical essay about the first time she made it in Virginia, just after she arrived in the States. Flattened by loneliness and culture shock, she cooked to assuage her sadness. When the pudding didn’t work, she burst into tears and left the kitchen to call her mother. Half an hour later, she remembered the pudding:
“…I rushed out to see the milk and rice in perfect unison. The cardamom had taken over the air in the room. The pudding, thick and creamy, was at a perfect simmer. My roommate took a spoonful. ‘Wow, it’s sweet, but it’s good. Is it like a rice pudding of some sort?’”
Just after, the man who would become her husband walked in to taste the rice pudding. That was the first time he tasted her cooking.
It’s stories like these, and the other open-hearted essays scattered through the book, that made me fall in love with Modern Spice. The food we ate this week is what gave the book a permanent place on our shelves.
We think you’d like this book too. So we’re giving away a copy of Modern Spice. Leave a comment about why you think this book will be useful to you in the kitchen, and we’ll pick a winner by random at the end of the week.
Danish Squash with Five Spices, ever so slightly adapted from Modern Spice. The voice of the directions is that of Monica Bhide.
This was one of my favorite recipes in the book, particularly because it’s squash season right now. The original called for acorn squash, but I found a firm, green Danish squash at our farmstand that day. Danish squash it is, then. And this dish had a kick to it.
For this recipe, you’ll need paanch phoron, which is a five-spice blend common to Bengali cooking. (It’s black mustard seeds, onion seeds, fenugreek, fennel seeds, and cumin.) This also works on so many dishes that you won’t regret the purchase. You’ll also need shallots, a green serrano chile, and some warm honey.
That’s one of the parts of cooking from Modern Spice that I liked best. As adventurous as we can be in the kitchen, we can fall into a rut of flavors too. We didn’t have any paanch phoron in the cupboard. Now, we do. Thank goodness. That means we can make this again.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons paanch phoron
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced
2 large or 4 small shallots, peeled and diced
1 small green serrano chile, minced (and if you don’t like that much heat, de-seeded)
1 dried red whole chile
1 medium (about 3 1/2 cups) Danish squash (or acorn, or Delicata, or…), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup water
warm honey (optional)
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
Heat the oil in a deep lidded saucepan over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the cumin seeds, paanch phoron, garlic, and shallots. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the shallots begin to change color.
Add the green chile, red chile, and the squash and mix well. Add the salt and turmeric and mix. Raise the heat and cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the squash just begins to brown.
Add water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the squash is soft and the water has almost dried up, about 20 minutes (it was more like 35 minutes on our stove).
Serve hot. Drizzle with warm honey and sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds, if you wish.