For the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent every waking minute of free time researching Indian cuisine and cooking methods. In the past I have tried to make chicken curry as well as saag (spiced spinach), to much disaster and disappointment. The saag came out a mess of stringy spinach floating in a pool of cream, and the curry came out watery and just…wrong.
I basically resigned myself to the fact that I will never be able to achieve the same level of quality and flavor (or even just correctness) as you find at an Indian restaurant. This saddened me a lot, because I like Indian food, but I’m pretty picky about what dishes I like, so buffets are not a good value for me (I can’t eat much more than 1 plate without exploding). I don’t like shelling out $20 + tax + tip every time Josh and I want to have Indian food. Not to mention what a boon it would be to my culinary skills if I was actually able to pull it off.
Apparently my hard work did finally pay off. This is the result of 4.5 hours of cooking this past Sunday, after 2 weeks of research and hours of tweaking and combining various recipes I had found:
From the top, clockwise: basmati rice, murgh makhani, naan, saag, mint-coriander chutney
I had actually made naan a few weeks ago, but I would not call it authentic by any means (despite hundreds of people who think otherwise from AllRecipes), so this time I tried a new recipe. As you can see, mine didn’t quite turn out like theirs…theirs look a lot more correct. The flavor was a bit better than the previous recipe, but I’m still waiting for a real winner with the naan.
Now about this chicken curry – that is the name given in every Indian restaurant, and then what? Totally useless, since “curry” just means “sauce”. Go look up recipes for chicken curry. Do it. You’ll find about a million with all different ingredients. Ask an Indian person for a chicken curry recipe. They’ll ask which one? My problem exactly.
I have now concluded that the chicken curry, as you find it in restaurants, is actually Murgh Makhani, or Butter Chicken (chicken = murgh, butter = makhani. Now we speak Indian!). Tomatoes but not too tomato-ey (as is the case with chicken tikka masala, a dish with an actual identifying name!), cream (or variations on cream), but not too creamy. I did notice lots of Indian bloggers freaking out over the “vast quantity of butter” that goes into butter chicken….and they then listed 1.5 tbsp of butter to the 1.5 lbs of chicken they also called for. This is nothing. Literally, nothing at all. You use 8 tbsp of butter just in the crust to make 1 pie. This curry serves at least 6, if not more, so really….don’t need to worry about the butter. The 1 cup of cream most recipes called for? Worry about that. A lot. 1 tbsp of cream has something like 50 calories, and there are 16 tbsp in 1 cup. Yeah. 800 calories just in cream. THAT is what you need to be worried about, not the butter, folks.
And so I did. I absolutely refused to purchase any kind of cream to make these dishes. For one thing, I never have any use for the rest of the cream. And for another, I really don’t want to ingest that many calories just to have some spicy chicken. I improvised with a combination of 1% milk and 2% plain Greek yogurt, and let me tell you it was just as delicious, and you load up on protein while smashing fat down to almost nothing!
Here is my conclusion as to the magical ingredients that really make this pop at home:
- Dried fenugreek leaves, or kasoori methi. You can find them at your local Indian grocer (I actually had one of these just 1 block from my regular Ralphs). They cost almost nothing and they are ESSENTIAL to making it taste authentic. Several Indian bloggers mentioned that the smell of fenugreek leaves is the main smell when you go to Indian restaurants.
- Tandoori masala. Again you can find this at your Indian grocer. It’s a spice blend, similar to garam masala, but the flavor is SO spot on. I smelled this as I was spooning it out and I thought wow will this be a winner! This also contains some fenugreek, so that might be part of it.
- Tomatoes. Throughout the course of the evening, I learned the instrumental part that tomatoes play in Indian cuisine. Does it taste full of tomato in the end? Not at all. Not even close. But it is absolutely essential. I used crushed tomatoes, as it was the closest thing I had, but in the future I will try to use tomato puree.
- Don’t be afraid to use your spices. A lot. I nearly doubled the spices as I was making it, compared to the recipe I had pieced together. It’s not that my spices are weak, it definitely tasted right with the initial quantity, but I really wanted to give it some oomph.
- Don’t use too much clove. Initially I used 3 cloves, and all I could taste was clove! Luckily I fished out 2 of them and it ended up being ok after the simmer.
Here is my beauty, fully cooked and ready to serve:
I’m the first to say that this picture does not look that appetizing. In fact it’s a pretty poor representation of what it looked like in real life. But trust me when I tell you that the flavor was 1) amazing, and truly 2) authentic.
Now for my other favorite, and definitely my favorite vegetable, in Indian cuisine: saag. What is this, you ask? I’ve never heard of it, you say? Well, it is Indian spiced, creamed spinach. You’ve probably heard it under the name Palak Paneer. Apparently both palak and saag mean spinach, and paneer means cheese, so Palak Paneer is exactly what I have made, only with bonus cubes of homemade cheese (they look like tofu). Personally that cheese grosses me out. I understand most people eat Palak Paneer as a vehicle for having the paneer, but when I eat it….it’s so I can eat the palak. I usually leave the paneer at the buffet as much as possible.
Why do I call it saag? Because most of the Indian food I had in my life was from a place called Khyber Express, a nice little fast food type stand in the mall (in 2 malls, actually. No longer in either mall, sadly). And they called it saag. So I call it saag. Sometimes I encounter it in buffets with no name and no paneer, and I get confused. It’s like they don’t want people knowing it’s not Palak Paneer or something.
When I’ve asked Indian people about this dish before, I’ve gotten a horrible reaction from them. They really dislike it, and tell me it’s very unpopular with Indian people (and every single person I’ve asked, and I’ve asked at least a dozen, has shared this opinion). However, they love Palak Paneer! Go figure. So finding a recipe was pretty much a joke. In the end I pieced together a half dozen recipes for Palak Paneer and just left the paneer out.
Let me tell you, it is perfect. When the final spices were stirred in and I tried it, I was completely shocked. How could it have possibly turned out correct?! How many times had I tried and failed, left with an inedible pile of spinach and cream?! But this, it was perfect. I actually made this first before the curry, and concentrated all my efforts solely on it, so that if it didn’t turn out well, I would know it wasn’t due to me neglecting it and trying to cook too many things at once. Well it turned out so nicely that I don’t think I need to fear that again.
Magical things that make this a success at home:
- Pureeing your spinach. Remember earlier when I said past attempt had been stringy spinach? Well that’s kind of what you get from chopped spinach. Saag, when you take a spoonful, just lifts cleanly away from the rest on your plate. You can only achieve this by pureeing. What a difference a texture makes.
- Tomatoes. Again. I laughed when I saw tomatoes in the recipe. What were they talking about, spinach with cream and tomatoes? What a joke, that had to be the recipe that fails. But I saw it in another. And another. And another. Eventually the ones that called for tomato outnumbered the ones that did not. And then I thought there had to be something to it. I hadn’t used tomato before, and it hadn’t turned out right, so what did I have to lose?
Really that was the only magic needed to pull off saag. I did use ghee in all dishes in place of oil for sauteeing the onions, and I think that was probably a big factor in the authentic flavor, but I can’t say for sure. Ghee is just clarified butter that has cooked a bit longer and developed a nice nutty flavor. I made my own a few weeks ago, it was easy and cheap (and delicious!).
Don’t worry, that’s not butter or oil pooling in those areas. The spinach was pureed with 1/2 cup of water and the watery residue from the puree looked like that before it even went in the pan. I swear It’s tinged orange from the turmeric. Again, I creamed with a combo of milk and greek yogurt, rather than actual cream.
The final thing I made was mint-coriander chutney. That’s the tiny mound of green you can see on our plates. It’s the spice sauce thing you get at the buffet. This one I still need to work on. I used Thai green chiles (which is the correct chile to use in most Indian cooking), which I had never used before, and it turned out they were obscenely spicy. Since I had already used all my cilantro and mint, I didn’t really have a way to correct it. Also I used too much lime juice in it. It did taste better the next day, but I think more research is needed. Some bloggers did recommend using jalapenos here instead of Thai chiles so that you can get more bulk without overdoing the heat, so I might try that. It’s pretty hard to puree simple cilantro and mint leaves into a smooth paste with 0 liquid…
Since this made so much food, we had tons of leftovers! After having dinner last night, I decided the time I saved not having to cook dinner could be spent making an Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun. I used this recipe and tried to follow it exactly. It looked great as it was soaking in the syrup (this is after we ate 6, oops! Nearly forgot to grab a photo).
But then inside…
Hollow?! Even weirder than hollow, the insides seemed to be filled with delicious ghee, mmm. Tasty, but odd! Otherwise the taste was perfect, and the texture of the non-hollow part was spot on. Aren’t they cute.
Then, my next bit of excellent news is that I wrote up the recipes I had crafted for the murgh makhani and the saag and submitted them to Food.com, and this morning they were published! So I encourage you to go now and make these, and give them a rating on there I know I’ll be making them again, and soon!
Once upon a time, a girl became an at-home chef. As such, she acquired many a spice. Wishing for her spices to be easier to find, pretty, and uniform in their encasings, she set out to find the world’s most perfect spice rack. She spent countless hours researching, and finally settled upon a choice.
Fast forward 2 years, and the perfect spice jar had proven anything but. It only held 20 spices, or about half her collection, and they all came pre-filled, at least half of which were not any decent. The flip top lid, which at time of purchase had seemed the best of both the scoop and shake worlds, proved useless on both counts. Too small to fit any larger than 1/4 tsp, too messy to shake. And if she unscrewed the lid, spices went all over the floor due to a horrible top mechanism.
No longer could she stand this. And what’s more, she wanted the rest of her spices to also find their way into a comfy jar home, no longer in random tins, bags, and bottles. And preferably, the new home would be something totally expandable, so as to not confine her collection of spices.
The jumbled mess before the reorg.
Unsurprisingly, I actually found more upon closer inspection
These pretties were my selected benefactors. Aren’t they pretty? I thought so. I bought 60 of them. Yes, 60 of them. They’re sold in cases of 12 and I sure didn’t want to find myself with 49 spices and no jar to hold the 49th spice!!!
Then I got a labelmaker (which I also wanted for various other labelling) and made these pretty labels on clear tape. I actually spent a couple of hours perfecting the size and font choice on these. You only redo your spice cabinet once, right? Right?????
When it was all said and done (which actually took HOURS, I think I spent some 9 hours on this from start to finish??? I’m sure I took longer than was necessary, but not by too much!), I had this GORGEOUS array of easy to scoop, not too big and not too small, airtight, uniform jars!!! I had 45 spices in all (and yes I am counting a couple of blends as well as table salt “spices”, because they definitely benefited from this reorg), and filled the remaining 3 of my first 48 jars with turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw), catnip (for the cats), and temptations (also for the cats – they like airtight seals, too).
And to give you some idea of the scale of the jars and sheer magnitude of the number of spices involved…
You may also notice the spot on the carpet where I spilled a whole ton of turmeric. Ah well.
And so, the girl turned home-chef found herself with such a lovely collection of spices, in such a pleasing array of colors and uniform containers, that she was overjoyed. Never again would she spill spices all over the floor while just trying to use them. Never would she have to limit her scoops to 1/4 tsp. And never again would she dump the entire container of table salt into her dessert while trying to measure out 1/2 tsp. Not that that ever happened. Really, it didn’t. But there were some close calls.
Next up? Finding some kind of way of putting these jars away….They’re kind of just stacked everywhere I could make a single layer of the jars (they’re too rounded to stack, and they’re glass…and I don’t want to risk it) and still easily access all of them. My top 15 are in the cabinet next to the stove, and the rest are ordered alphabetically in another cabinet.
By the way, if you do clear spice jars, do your best to keep them in a cabinet or other dark surrounding. I feel obligated to say this, lest someone comment and tell me I misled them to leave their spices in direct sunlight and they became useless overnight. Don’t do that.
I just love them!
If you personally know me, you’ll know I go through stages. I latch onto something, go full steam ahead, and then I’m over it as soon as I started it. This is totally normal to me, and I never even noticed it really until a few people pointed it out to me in recent years, and it did make sense.
The last couple weeks I was on a digital organization kick. All of the sudden I had to have a new backup hard drive, and I had to fill it up right away. And promptly physically broke the thing and lost all my data (the only copy of some of it). This, in turn, required I buy yet another hard drive, copy everything I had left, and start to really organize files that have never seen organization over the past 10 years. It took over a week just to get to the point of being able to start organizing the files. I got them into general categories and ran lots of tools to ensure I had no duplicate files (not anymore – I did have tons and tons of duplicate files. This is what happens when you copy your folders again and again out of paranoia).
So what did that mean? That meant it was time to really get down to business! And that’s when I lost all interest in it. I had achieved my main goal – I now have dual backups fully replicated of all of my data ever. I can feel free to break 1 more hard drive and still be ok. Ideally, those backup drives would be fully organized and magnificent. But you know what, that is a lot of data. A lot of data. And the task became overwhelming. There was no hurry to organize files, as there had been to back everything up after I broke the drive, even though the initial drive (no pun intended) to start on this task came out of nowhere.
I had about 3 or 4 days after I gave up on digital organization where I floundered. I felt like I had nothing to do, and I actually thought it was from no longer having something as massive as planning a wedding always hanging overhead to fill up any free time. I think I was just waiting to hop on board my next quick train, though. Turns out that train was real-life organization!
For the last 3 days, I have been cleaning totally nonstop. I started in the living room, going through old boxes I’d been ignoring for…at least over a year now. I also cleaned out all of the windowsills (hadn’t done that since we moved in 3 years ago! Ewwww), and any random areas of dirt on the walls (yes, the walls actually get buildup in high traffic areas). The next day I cleaned the bathroom totally from top to bottom – and side to side, for that matter. I’ve never cleaned the bathroom that well or that thoroughly. It’s not only clean (as in grime) but it’s clean (as in organized). Everything is put away in it’s right place, everything is dust-free and beautiful. And it makes me so much happier. The next morning (ie this morning) I walked in and did not recognize it. That was a great feeling! I always feel like the bathroom is one of the hardest place to get in shape, especially when one owns too many bath products….as one might do…
Tonight I tackled what is easily the dungeon of the apartment: the walk-in closet. It sounds glamorous. It sounds like it contains the most fabulous collection of clothing, and most especially shoes. And I’m sure it would if I had a garage, laundry room, linen closet, and/or hobby room. Instead it’s the dumping ground for anything that doesn’t really have a place elsewhere. Sporting equipment, laundry accessories, hobby supplies, wedding decor that needs to be sold, wedding china we don’t have nearly the cupboard space required here, luggage, a giant ballgown that hasn’t yet been preserved and stuffed into a tiny box, bath towels, beach towels, sheets, handbags, a pull up bar, college diploma frame, guitar, skateboard, gift bags, art and MORE fill this space. Oh, and it also has clothes and shoes. Cleaning this beast has been dreaded. Nothing in there seems like anything can be done with it – it’s not junk, there just isn’t anywhere else for it.
Well, it turns out some of it was junk. Not much, but enough to help significantly. I still had my bag of ice skates leftover from the fire (“the fire” = the fire that destroyed my apartment in college 1 month before graduation in 2007) from which I had been meaning to harvest the blades and toss the rest, as nothing else could be salvaged (I’m not even positive the blades are usable). Tonight I harvested those blades and trashed the rest. This cleared off a big chunk of the overhead shelving in there. I also picked out a few items of clothing I haven’t worn in 4+ years, which was enough for me to be able to hang up the hanging sweater holder that Josh and I bought a year ago which we had only managed to fit on his side of the closet so far! It’s pretty exciting. I moved some boxes around and tada, about half of the closet was organized. It looks so much better already, and that feels better.
I also finally went through my leftover wedding items. Everything was sorted into sell, keep, donate, and I even washed all of the table runners so they’re ready to go too. That got rid of a big basket of stuff! What I have left to sell fits together nicely now in a small area, vs the millions of boxes taking up the entire floor in there before.
I’m feeling pretty great about myself through my success in cleaning and organization. I’m also feeling pretty tired though! I basically clean the entire time after work except for about 1 hour to eat and watch some TV. Just like everything else though, I’m sure I’ll be over this soon enough, so I better go all-out while I’m on this kick in order to achieve maximum payoff. So far I’m very happy with my work!