Monday, June 21, 2010

Guest Post: Exploring Indian Spices with Roberta

It is with great pleasure to introduce you to Roberta a talented Dietitian and Published writer and founder of Spin A recipe, a site to help you randomly select the days meals like a slot machine. 
Enjoy her lovely post about spices and a great Indian inspired recipe

- Rebecca

Exploring Indian Spices
by Roberta Schwartz Wennik, MS, RD

We take spices for granted today.  But before the birth of Christ, spices were a treasured commodity used for commerce in the Middle East.  Pepper was the most common spice, while saffron was the most exclusive.  Originally, spices made their way to Europe over land routes. Only the wealthy could afford them because they were so expensive.  When the Ottoman Empire started charging hefty taxes on spices headed to Europe, the Europeans set out to find a route by water that would take them to the source of the spices.  If it weren’t for these much desired spices, Christopher Columbus would never have discovered the New World.  He set out from Spain to find a maritime route to the Indies and once making landfall, he assumed he had arrived.  Of course, he didn’t make it but he was followed by many explorers who established ocean routes for the trading of spices.

I often cook with ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon and ginger.  Yet a whole new world of cooking became available to me when I started exploring the recipes of India, using whole dried spices.  I found that by roasting the whole spice in some ghee or clarified butter, the flavors literally exploded.  Until you’ve experienced cooking with whole spices, you can’t appreciate how much of the volatile flavors are lost when spices are ground and kept in a jar for months and months. 

The challenge, though, is finding a market that carries whole spices.  I ended up by going to an Indian market where I not only found whole cumin, coriander, mustard, fennel and fenugreek seeds, I was overwhelmed by the variety of dal or legumes.  Indians eat such dals as chana dal (split chickpeas without their seedcoat), kala chana (small chickpeas with brown skins) and masoor dal (red lentils). 

Because of the marvelous mélange or mixture of spices, dals, and vegetables in typical Indian dishes, meat doesn’t seem all that necessary to have at the meal.  There is plenty of protein in dals, though you could add small pieces of meat to most Indian curries.  In my experimenting with Indian ingredients, I cooked up a marvelous dish I call “Indian Dal Stew with Yams and Raisins.  Enjoy.

Indian Dal Stew with Yams and Raisins

Serves 4-6

2 cups chana dal (or you can use yellow split peas)
6 cups water
1 large yam
1 ½  teaspoons ghee or clarified butter, divided
1  ½ teaspoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin
½ teaspoon whole coriander
½ teaspoon whole yellow mustard seed
1 yam, peeled and diced
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
3/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
½ - 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/3 cup raisins

1.     In a large pot, place the chana dal in the 6 cups of water.  Bring the water to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30–35 minutes or until the dal is tender.
2.     Meanwhile, peel and dice the yam.  Set aside.
3.     Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat and melt 2 teaspoons ghee or clarified butter.  Add the cumin, coriander and mustard seed, toasting the seeds until golden.  You may want to keep a lid at the ready since the coriander and mustard seed might start to pop.
4.     Add the yam and sauté for about 2-3 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, their juice, chicken broth, ground cinnamon and sugar.  Lower the heat and cover the pot.  Continue to cook until the yam is tender.
5.     Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
6.     Drain the chana dal and stir it and the raisins into the yam mixture.
7.     Continue to cook the mixture over low heat until the raisins are plump and the juices have been absorbed. 
8.     Stir in the last teaspoon of ghee and season to taste with salt.

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