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Joni Woolf: Indian dishes to tempt — and reward — the palate

Recently Beth Alston handed me a cookbook — “Lite and Luscious Cuisine of India” — and I have enjoyed perusing the recipes. Rice is a staple of their diet, as is chicken. And rice and chicken are staples of my diet, so I knew I would find recipes I would enjoy sampling. In fact, when the cupboard is nearly bare, I can almost always put together one of my favorite meals. (It’s a meal vegetarians could enjoy, as well.) I begin with rice (brown or white) which I cook and set aside; then I open a can of black-eyed peas, or black beans; open a can of diced tomatoes and cut an onion into small dice. Ladling the rice into a pasta bowl, I top it with the peas or beans, then the tomatoes, then sprinkle onions all over it, flavor with a little salt and pepper, and voila! A perfectly balanced meal. And delicious.
More often, I’m looking for recipes to try something different, and the Indian cookbook provides a tempting variety of dishes that I am looking forward to preparing. In fact, the photograph of a rice dish called “Rice Pilaf with Peas” convinced me that I should try it right away, so tomorrow night it will accompany whatever else I decide to prepare. It could even be the main course.
Another recipe from the cookbook that sounds tempting is “Chicken Curry,” the most common way to serve chicken in that culture, according to the cookbook author, Madhu Gadia, a clinical dietitian in Ames, Iowa. Both of these recipes are offered in the hope that you, like I, enjoy experimenting with foods from many cultures, and appreciate the differences — and the similarities — in our cuisines.

Chicken Curry
3 lbs. chicken pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin powder
4 cardamom pods
1 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, chopped
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Remove the skin and all visible fat from the chicken pieces. Cut 2 or 3 slits, 1 inch long and 1/2 inch deep, in each piece of chicken. Set aside.
Heat oil in a heavy skillet (or Dutch oven) over medium high heat. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer and fry 3 to 5 minutes, turning the pieces over once or twice until they are white. Transfer the chicken to a plate, using a slotted spoon.
Add cumin powder, cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, chopped onion, garlic and ginger to the oil. Saute for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring constantly until the onions are golden brown.
Stir in tomatoes, turmeric, coriander powder, cayenne pepper, ground fennel seeds and black pepper. Saute 2 to 3 minutes. Whip yogurt with wire whisk and add 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring constantly. Saute for another 2 to 4 minutes.
Add the chicken and sprinkle with salt. Stir to coat the spice mixture evenly. Pour the water evenly over the chicken. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Add the fresh coriander and gently stir the chicken. Cover tightly and simmer 20-25 minutes. Chicken should be tender to the touch but should not fall apart.
Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Delicious served with rice.
Rice Pilaf with Peas
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cloves
1/2 inch stick cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3/4 cup peas
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala (See Note)
2 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Rinse rice and soak in cold water for 1/2 hour or longer.
Drain the rice in a strainer; set aside.
Combine the cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves, and bay leaves in a small bowl; set aside.
Heat oil in a 3-4 quart saucepan (or Dutch oven) over medium high heat. Add the spices and stir for a few seconds until the cumin seeds are golden brown. Add the sliced onions and saute until onions are golden brown. Add the strained rice and stir for 2-3 minutes, taking care not to break the rice.
Add peas, garam masala, 2 3/4 cups water and salt. Stir gently to mix.
Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Partially cover with a lid, leaving a small crack open for steam to escape. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes, gently stirring once or twice. All water should be absorbed. Check if rice is done by placing 1 or 2 grains of rice on the counter top and gently pressing with your finger. If rice is not done, you will feel the grain under your finger.
Remove from the heat. Cover with a lid until ready to serve. Before serving, gently stir and fluff rice with a fork by gently stirring from the bottom.
(Note: Garam masala is a combination of spices, put together and ground in a coffee grinder or blender. The spices are: ½ cup cumin seeds, 1/3 cup whole peppercorns, ½ cup large cardamom pods, 1 tablespoon cloves, 4 cinnamon sticks, 10-12 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon dried ginger powder. Lightly dry-roast cumin seeds; cool to room temperature. Combine all spices and grind to fine powder. Store in air-tight container.)
Join me in trying something different this weekend. There is so much waiting for us to experience and enjoy in cultures different from our own. And there is no time like now to begin.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net.