Sunday, November 21, 2010

Indian Inspiration

You may have heard that I'm suffering from a terrible bout of chef's block.  I got a few suggestions that can be summed up in a few points:

1. Try to recreate a memorable restaurant meal.
2. Flip through some recipes and just start cooking.
3. Go exotic.
4. Keep eating the same thing over and over again till you get so sick of it, that inspiration MUST come to you.

I attempted an amalgam of all these techniques this weekend.  My brother-in-law (we shall call him Kidney, or "Kid" for short) was in town for a conference and had free time to hang out on Saturday night.  I had originally planned on taking him to one of my favorite restaurants in town, but I'd heard through the grapevine what Kid was too shy to say -- he was hoping to try my cooking.  Well, Kid doesn't come to town all that often, so I had to indulge him, chef's block or not.

I worked my way backwards through that list of suggestions.  First, I considered what I'd eaten a lot of lately.  Two things came to mind: Indian food and Jimmy John's Vito with hot peppers.   One thing I've never done was buy store-bought and pass off as my own cooking, so I wasn't about to start by taking a Jimmy John's out of it's paper wrapping and throwing it on a plate for Kid.  So Indian food it would be.  Once again.

Second suggestion: Go exotic.  Check.

Third suggestion: Flip through some recipes.  Saveur magazine had a few interesting recipes and I am now the proud owner of a couple of Indian cookbooks, so check.

Fourth suggestion: Recreate a memorable restaurant meal.  So here's where I kill two birds with one stone.  I'd obliterate my chef's block while reminiscing about my trip.  For Kid's dinner, I would make prawns with saffron coconut curry and matar paneer (among other things).

Our trip to India took us to a lot of places in the country, but we did not get anywhere near the ocean.  Accordingly, we weren't confident about ordering seafood in many places.  But we did seek out one place, Sagwath Restaurant in the Defense Colony district of Delhi, that was recommended by Frommer's that specialized in southern Indian cuisine.  We ate a lot of prawns and other fish, all of which was rich and bursting with flavor.  We stuffed ourselves and ambled through a nearby bazaar set up for Diwali that was decorated with marigolds and temples for favorite gods placed at every corner before catching an autorickshaw back to the hotel.  I would recreate the meal at Sagwath with prawns in saffron coconut curry.
Chutneys at Sagwath
Ganesh, among beds of marigolds.
Matar paneer, or curried cheese and peas, is a traditional Punjab dish that we ate throughout the northern region where we were traveling.  Everyone had their own version of it, but the best one we had was the one at the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling.  Darjeeling, famous for its tea, was a gift to the British Empire from the Kingdom of Sikkim in the mid-1800's.  It became a resort town where the British soldiers stationed in India could go to retreat from the heat and humidity of the plains into the more temperate climes of the Darjeeling hills.  We descended from our trek around Sikkim into Darjeeling and could immediately see why Darjeeling was such a treasured gift.  Perched on one hill amongst many hills, dripping with tea bushes, the local Hindus and Buddhists erected a temple at the peak of Observatory Hill, where they could be closer to heaven.  And truly, just below that temple, at the Windamere Hotel, the matar paneer, with its smooth and tender paneer and rich, velvety sauce, was close to godliness.
Clouds rolling over the hills surrounding Darjeeling
Prayer flags strewn around the Hindu/Buddhist temple
The Windamere Hotel
The meal I made for Kid also consisted of potatoes with asafeotida, daal, naan, and rice, followed by three varieties of kulfi.  But the greatest amount of the effort went into the paneer and prawn dishes.  Since I hadn't spent a whole lot of time studying the recipes, the dishes took a lot longer to prepare.  I kept referring back to the recipes, step after step, adding spices with painstaking precision, using measuring spoons rather than my usual approximations ("teaspoon" = big pinch with two fingers and thumb; "tablespoon" = big pinch with three fingers and thumb).  Each individual motion felt natural, but for the act of measuring out spices.  The measuring threw off my momentum and disrupted the flow.  Still, it felt good to be back in the kitchen.  The fog of chef's block hadn't yet lifted, but at least most of my cooking sense had come back.

We sat down for dinner.  The bronze statue of Ganesh I'd purchased at a curio shop in Khajuraho was already seated on the table.  Ganesh is the famous elephant-headed Hindu god, son of Shiva and Parvati, Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles.  I'm not a religious person, but it did not escape my attention that the Remover of Obstacles was sitting at the table where I hoped to exorcise my chef's block.
The meal, to me, was just okay.  It was definitely Indian food -- still the best Indian food in Denver -- but it was missing a certain je ne sais quoi... I can only surmise that it was the mechanical way in which the meal was prepared, the way someone with chef's block cooks.  And, what's worse, I'd left the pots and pans to soak in the kitchen sink overnight.  The scent of that Indian food this morning, though not unpleasant, was just too much.  I'd eaten my fill of Indian food, and there it was again in the morning, taunting me to eat leftover Indian food for breakfast.  It was enough to make me crave a big creamy bowl of steel cut oatmeal, followed by a big, fat, juicy ribeye steak (no, I'm not pregnant, I often crave a steak in the morning).

Wait... What was that?  I had a craving?  Yes!  I have finally kicked my chef's block!

Thank you all for providing your helpful tips to get me through this difficult time.  Thanks, especially to my twin, Lawyer Loves Lunch, for knowing me well enough to know that it was the act of eating the same thing over and over again that would ultimately drive me into the arms of another food.

I should add that, despite the fact that I didn't love what I'd cooked up last night, Kid liked it well enough, and he had seconds of both the prawns and the paneer, so, at the very least, the recipes are at least worth sharing.  Here they are, with links to the original recipes and adjustments where, now that I think I've kicked the chef's block, I would have made substitutions and adjustments.  I'm also giving you these recipes with the caveat that none of the measurements should be used precisely -- it'll all come together much more nicely if you trust your intuition better than your measuring spoons.

Prawns with saffron coconut curry (adapted from Vij's Cookbook)
Serves 6
2 lbs prawns, shelled and deveined
1 tsp saffron
1/2 c warm water
1 1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 c canola oil
1 1/2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp ground black mustard seeds
1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
1/2 tbsp ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground tumeric
3 c water
2 c coconut milk

In a medium bowl combine prawns and 1 tsp of salt and mix well.  Cover and refrigerate for up to 6 hours.
In a small bowl, crush saffron with the back of a spoon and add 1/2 c warm water.  Set aside.
Heat oil in large saucepan on high heat.  Stir in cumin seeds and allow them to sizzle for 30 seconds.  Turn the heat down to medium and add tomatoes, ground mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, cayenne, tumeric, and 1 tbsp salt.  Stir well and cook for 5 minutes.
Add 3 cups of water, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring regularly.  Add coconut milk and saffron (with water).  Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes.
Bring curry to a boil on medium heat.  As soon as it start to boil, add the prawns and stir gently.  Cook for about 4-6 minutes, till the prawns are just done.
Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with basmati rice.

Matar Paneer (Curried cheese and peas) (adapted from Saveur)
Serves 6
Included in this recipe are instructions for making paneer.  Paneer is not difficult to make, and it comes with 30-minute blocks of waiting time, during which you can be doing something else, like preparing the matar paneer sauce or making naan -- it's up to you to decide what to do with your spare time.  Mix and mingle your kitchen activities as you wish!
1 gallon + 1 pint whole milk
1/2 c lemon juice (2-3 lemons)
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2" piece peeled ginger, half of it coarsely chopped
6 tbsp clarified butter
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds
3 green cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
3" stick of cinnamon
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp smoked paprika
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 c canola oil
2 c frozen peas, thawed
1 tbsp garam masala
Salt and pepper to taste

Paneer Instructions:
In a large stock pot, heat the milk till it almost boils, stirring occasionally.  Add the lemon juice.  Do not stir so as not to break up all the curds, but with a wooden spoon, gently, push the curds toward one side of the pot in no more than 4-5 strokes.  Let the milk mixture sit for 5 minutes.
Set a large colander in the sink and line it with a large piece of cheesecloth folded into 4 layers.  Pour the milk mixture into the colander, allowing the whey (the yellow-ish water) to drain off.  Let it drain for another 5 minutes.  Then, pull up the corners of the cheesecloth and tie them into a light knot and run the wooden spoon under the knot, so it looks like a hobo's pouch hanging on a stick.  Prop the stick across the top of the empty stock pot so the pouch of cheese hangs into it as it drains.  Let it drain for 30 minutes.
Untie the cheesecloth and gently form the pouch of cheese into a flat rectangle.  Fold the cheesecloth back over the cheese, wrap the package in a kitchen towel, and set it in a shallow baking pan.  Place a heavy cutting board onto the cheese package and set something heavy on it (I used a large dutch oven filled with canned food).  Let it drain this way for 1.5 hrs, unwrapping it every 30 minutes to squeeze out the liquid from the cheese cloth, and rewrapping it tighter.
When the cheese is done draining, cut off the rounded ends to create a rectangular block with squared off edges.  Cut the block of cheese into 1/4" cubes for the matar paneer and crumble the rounded ends for garnish.
Matar Paneer Instructions:
Purée garlic, chopped ginger, and 1⁄4 cup water to a coarse paste in a blender and set the paste aside.
Heat clarified butter in a large pot over medium-high heat.   Add cumin seeds, cardamom pods, whole cloves, and cinnamon stick, and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute.  Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until just browned, 7-8 minutes.  Add ginger-garlic paste, ground turmeric, and paprika, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter starts to separate from the paste, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and cook, stirring slowly so that the tomatoes caramelize but don't burn, until brick red and thickened, 12-14 minutes.  Add 4 c water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10-15 minutes.
Add paneer cubes, peas, garam masala, and salt to pot and stir to combine.  Heat through, 2-3 minutes more.  Garnish with crumbled paneer and cilantro.  Serve with naan or basmati rice.


  1. i want to hear more about India!

    And i've also got a bit of chef block going on. Meh.

  2. Oatmeal, followed by steak. Sounds like the makings of a solid meal indeed. Welcome back (culinarily and physically) :)

  3. Great to hear the creative juices are again flowing.

    A friend gave me a wooden Ganesh who later helped me (actually more than a few times) with writers block...really.

    Thanks for the recipes...looking forward to trying them.

  4. Darjeeling looks positively beautiful, and I do love that tea! You did an outstanding job with your dishes, and I don't know if I ever get chefs block, I just have times I don't want to that the same thing?
    Anyway it looks like your on your way to recovery!
    Things always get better

  5. wonderful meal lovely pictures
    me too it happens but when you are back there is so many ideas
    see you with lots more regards

  6. Thanks, guys! It's good to be back (culinarily and physically).

    @baking barrister: Hopefully your chef's block has dislodged itself by now. If nothing else, endless days of leftover turkey ought to get you there.

    @Chef Dennis: India had many high points. Darjeeling tea was one of them.
    I think not wanting to cook for a day or two isn't chef's block. It's chef's block if you go for two weeks and feel no inspiration to cook whatsoever. It's a horrible feeling.

    @TorviewToronto: It's true, ideas start to pop in after a while. You just have to hope it's sooner rather than later!


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