Ambitious home cooks who begin dabbling with Indian cuisine learn early on just how confusing it can be.
Identifying legumes feels like deciphering the Periodic Table of Elements. Have you tried browsing the aisles of an international grocer on a quest for lentils? The cornucopia of varietals can discombobulate any novice. Heck, I wouldn't blame anyone from throwing their arms up, calling it quits and opting for takeout. London Sizzler, anyone?
Then there's the issue of spices. It's a wild world out there, y'all.
Never fear though. Local cookbook author Shubhra Ramineni breaks it all down in her first tome, Entice with Spice: Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People. The secret, she proposes, is that many Indian dishes can be flavored with just five spices: Black pepper, salt, cumin seeds, turmeric and cayenne.
More experienced chefs can add zest with mustard seeds, coriander, paprika, tamarind paste and garam masala, among other aromatics commonly found in your everyday, suburban markets. But please refrain from reaching for the bottle of curry powder. Because in authentic Indian cookery there's no such thing — at least not in how the term is used colloquially.
"Simply, curry means sauce or gravy," Ramineni says. "No one uses curry powder in India. That's a western invention."
Leave it up to a chemical engineer with a degree from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA in finance from the University of Houston to be blessed with the analytical prowess to clarify such a complex tradition. Although she can even teach the gastronomically challenged — like those who can't boil water without burning it — to churn out delicious fare, this friendly gal's globetrotting journey with cooking didn't start off with the right foot.
"A pinch of this, a dash of that, chop this other thing . . . that's how my mother tried to teach me how to cook," Ramineni says. "I would ask a million questions, and she would scold me for asking more questions. Well, that wasn't fun."
Ramineni sought to document just how much "a pinch of this and a dash of that" translated into standard measurements.
She then hit the stacks in search of a cookbook, many of which offered a bevy of intricate recipes, but for a busy professionals, there wasn't enough hours in the day to devote to elaborate, restaurant-style dals, soups and curries.
"I couldn't find a cookbook written from the perspective of an Indian-American — someone who knows what's in stock in our grocery stores and who understands the pressures of being a working mom," Ramineni continues. "It shouldn't be so difficult to find Indian recipes for everyday meals that don't require a scavenger hunt for ingredients."
The answer was right at home.
Spending time in the kitchen with her mom, Neelam Verma, a nutritionist who grew up in Jalandhar and Chandigarh, cities in the northern Punjabi region of India, turned into a bit of a methodical science experiment. Ramineni sought to document just how much "a pinch of this and a dash of that" translated into standard measurements. She repeated this exercise with her mother-in-law, whose recipes are mused by her upbringing in Repalle, a coastal town on the eastern Andhra Pradesh area.
The outcome was a beautifully photographed hardcover book, published in 2010, with more than 100 recipes that include popular restaurant dishes, like saag paneer, samosas and chicken tikka masala, alongside everyday home-style meals such as her father's baked salmon, sautéed okra with onions and black-eyed pea curry.
Ramineni's second book, Healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking: Easy Recipes for the Hurry Home Cook, which will be released later this month, continues her efforts to rework Indian cuisine for the modern kitchen — with a locavore and nutritional twist that's also vegan friendly.
Influenced by her mother's occupation in addition to the present-day trend that advocates for the consumption of locally sourced ingredients, Healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking marries the lighter side of the subcontinent's cooking techniques with produce grown by Texas farmers. Among her favorite vendors are All We Need Farm in Needville, Home Sweet Farm in Brenham, Basketcase in Jones Creek and Blackwood Bounty in Hempstead, many of whom are merchants at Urban Harvest Farmers Market.
"I hope my vegetarian cookbook is an option for those looking to eat healthfully without giving up flavor."
You get the idea from poring over the step-by-step recipes, which include Indian style corn on the cob, green lentils and kale stew, collard greens and parsnips, and pan-seared Brussels sprouts. There's even tofu breakfast scramble and tandoori tofu kebabs that will knock your taste buds off their rockers.
It's an East meets West and a past-and-present type of thing that takes into consideration what's in fashion. Like quinoa.
"You can't have a healthy vegetarian cookbook without a quinoa dish," she jokes. "Even Monica Pope — she wrote the foreword — told me you have to have a quinoa dish. I have to admit I had no idea what to do with quinoa, but I knew I had come up with something good when my daughter asked me to pack some for her lunch."
Her quinoa cashew pilaf won Phoenicia Specialty Foods' Mommy's Favorite Recipe Contest. Not bad for a quinoa newbie.
"I grew up mainly eating vegetarian," Ramineni explains. "I hope my vegetarian cookbook is an option for those looking to eat healthfully without giving up flavor."
A launch party for Healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking is set for 7 p.m. June 25 at Whole Foods Market Montrose. The $20 admission fee includes a copy of the new cookbook along with a donation to Recipe for Success, whose mission to fight childhood obesity aligns with Ramineni's thinking that delicious and healthy aren't mutually exclusive. And with Houston ranked as one of the fattest cities in the country, any additional resources are surely welcome.
"Since becoming a new mom, teaching healthy eating habits to young kids is a cause that is near and dear to me," she adds.
Courtesy of Ramineni, her award-winning recipe appears below.
Quinoa Cashew Pilaf Recipe
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes plus 5 minutes to rest
Refrigerator life: Three days
Freezer life: One month
Reheating method: Place the refrigerated or defrosted quinoa in a microwave and stir periodically. Or, place the quinoa in a saucepan and warm over medium-low heat, stirring periodically.
- 1 cup uncooked white quinoa
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 20 whole cashews, split in half lengthwise
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
- 1 medium russet potato (about 1/2 pound) peeled and diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup frozen or fresh green peas
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1. Place quinoa in a large sieve. Run cold water over it to thoroughly wash the grains. While washing the quinoa, rub the grains with your fingers to thoroughly clean them. Drain the quinoa.
2. Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is heated, add the cashews. Sauté until the cashews are light golden, stirring frequently, about 30 seconds. Remove the cashews from the saucepan and set aside.
3. Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil into the saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is heated, add the cumin seeds and onion. Sauté the onion until lightly golden, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the sautéed cashews, potato, carrot, peas and quinoa. Stir to combine. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
5. Add the water, salt and turmeric. Stir to combine. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat.
6. Stir and reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer undisturbed until the water is completely absorbed and you do not see any more water on the bottom of the saucepan if you insert a spoon through the quinoa, about 13 minutes. The quinoa will have turned slightly transparent, and the spiral-like germ will have separated from the grain and curl around it like a small thread.
7. Turn off the heat. Let rest, covered, for 5 minutes on the warm stove. Keep covered until ready to serve or let cool to room temperature and refrigerate or freeze for later. Before serving, gently fluff the quinoa with a fork to mix the cashews and vegetables