12 Cookbooks: Vegetarian India

Post by Matt, Information Services staff

Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!

Spreadsheets are my favourite organizational tool. Whenever I have to gather my thoughts or plan anything that won’t fit inside my head, I rely on that magical combination of blocks and lines to help keep me focused. That’s why I started using a spreadsheet of weekly scheduled dinners to help me decide what to eat each week. It’s the best decision I’ve made since I started caring about the food I shovel into my face. 

Screenshot of a spreadsheet for an eight week dinner schedule of meals.
Table Description: Week One is Chili and Sandwich/Wraps. Week Two is Tacos/Burritos and Hearty/Pasta Salad. Week Three is Pot Pie/Shepards Pie and Breakfast for Dinner. Week Four is Pasta and Meatballs and Stir Fry. Week Five is Curry and Veggie Burgers/Sausages. Week Six is Mac & Cheese and Asian Noodles. Week Seven is Soup and Pizza. Week Eight is Stuffed/Layered Pasta and Veggie Bowls. Optional Meal Type is Dumplings/Pierogies.

The spreadsheet spans eight weeks with two distinct dinners per week. These dinners are chosen to compliment each other and because they can last us multiple meals, so we only have to spend time cooking dinner twice a week (with a weekly take-out night mixed in between). On top of that, each type of dinner is linked to a number of proven recipes that we know and like. I really like this system because it takes a lot of the anxiety and thought out of meal-making. There’s no panic to come up with something on my way home from work, less temptation to give up and just order pizza, and plenty of variety so that I don’t get bored with what I’m making week to week. There’s just one problem:

Zoomed in view of meal plan spreadsheet with red marker circling the word curry.

I’m scared of curry. Of course, this is my fault. When I added it to the rotation, I knew it was aspirational; I’ve enjoyed the North Americanized versions of butter chicken, mattar paneer and aloo gobi from local Indian restaurants for years, but I’d never made any of them myself. This dinner schedule was going to be my chance to fix that. When the first Week 5 rolled around, I found my recipe, bought my ingredients and started cooking. It went poorly. The paneer was burnt, my sauce was thin and soupy, and it all tasted overwhelmingly like tomato paste. To compound my failure, it made so much! I had containers and containers of this abomination clogging up my freezer for months, a constant reminder of my culinary hubris. It was a humbling experience that taught me a lot. Mainly, to keep a cool head when things start going badly and to stop using recipes that I found as gifs or videos on social media.

So here we are. The dinner schedule rotation keeps rolling and I keep skipping over curry, too afraid to face my failure. Until now! 12 Cookbooks has given me the opportunity to challenge myself and try again, but this time with the help of cooking legend Madhur Jaffrey and her decades of experience in Indian cuisine.

Jaffrey’s book is the first in this series that I would call comprehensive. With over 400 pages of recipes for a staggering variety of vegetarian dishes from all over India, Vegetarian India reflects a substantial mosaic of traditional and experimental home cooking from a multitude of sources. There are restaurant standards, generational recipes, inspired twists by Jaffrey and more to discover. Amidst all these delicious, neverending options, it has been a true challenge to pick which recipes to attempt this month. Ultimately, I settled on ‘Onion Fritters,’ ‘Cauliflower with Potatoes,’ and ‘Fresh Indian Cheese in a Butter-Tomato Sauce.’ 

To avoid typing ‘Fresh Indian Cheese in a Butter-Tomato Sauce’ a million more times, from now on I’ll refer to these three recipes by the Indian names that Jaffrey assigns: bhajia, aloo gobi and paneer makhani.

I chose these recipes because they remind me of my North American favourites, but also because the paneer was very similar to the recipe that I previously failed to make. And after all, this is all about my ego, not the cooking. That said, I did put considerable effort into finding the ingredients for these recipes, taking trips to three separate grocery stores to find specialty flour, spices and paneer – a soft, delicate cheese that crisps up on the outside but won’t melt away in a pan. Once the shopping was completed, I prepared for a day of intense cooking.

Luckily, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t all that difficult. I began with the aloo gobi by boiling potatoes, chopping cauliflower and mixing spices together in a bowl. After that, I simply browned the vegetables in a wok, added the spices and it was done. And it tasted delicious! Of all the recipes, this most resembled the dish that I remembered from my trips to local Indian restaurants and the one that I’ll be most likely to revisit again in the future.

With my initial nervousness settled a bit, I turned to face my old nemesis and started chopping up paneer. I won’t lie, I was worried. The sauce, made of tomato puree, heavy cream and spices, looked pale, blotchy and absolutely horrible, and it was only after cooking in a pan for 15-20 minutes that it began to darken and resemble the image in Jaffrey’s book.

Once this minor heart attack was over, I felt elated. I had made the thing! And it tasted pretty decent; the paneer was crispy along the edges and soft in the centre, while the sauce was rich, buttery, and a little too sweet, but flavourful all the same. I’m still not certain how it became so sweet. Aside from the small teaspoon of sugar in the sauce, there were no visible suspects. Perhaps the tomato puree added unseen sugar? Perhaps my inability to find cumin seeds or fenugreek for the dish left it a little more one-dimensional than it could have been? Either way, I was reasonably happy with the result. With these successes under my belt, I turned to my final element: the bhajia.

Bhajia, plural for bhaji, are a deep fried snack made or filled with vegetables – usually onion, potato or chilies – that are made all across India and the world. This recipe featured onions chopped into strips, mixed with chickpea flour, cilantro and spices, and balled into a lattice similar to a latke or a hashbrown. Then the balls are fried in oil until they’re hot, crispy and delicious. If they stay together. Jaffrey’s recipe relies on a few tablespoons of flour and a teaspoon of salt to create enough moisture for the onions to stick together into a cohesive mass. But how is salt supposed to help with that? I had no idea, until I learned about a process known as “disgorging vegetables.” 

It sounds super gross, but it’s actually based around the concept of osmosis. You may remember osmosis from your grade school biology class or, like me, you may not! Osmosis, I re-learned, is when water moves across the membrane of a cell. Certain materials, like salt, are really good at encouraging that movement. Osmosis has a huge variety of applications, but in the culinary field a common one is to ‘disgorge’ vegetables, or suck out water. Many chefs will mix watery vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber or onion with salt to draw out excess water and, in doing so, enhance the vegetable flavour in the dish. In Jaffrey’s bhajia recipe, the salt not only adds flavour to the finished product, it also draws out water from the onions that mixes with the flour and creates a sticky batter that brings everything together.

In theory. Perhaps I didn’t let it soak long enough, but my onions just wouldn’t cooperate and stay together. In the end, I had to resort to quickly dipping my tightly squeezed onion patties into an egg wash and then dredging them in more flour before dropping them into the hot oil. Deep frying is a new skill for me, so the bhajia were far from perfect, but at least they held together long enough to reach the plate!

A plate with aloo gobi, paneer makhani, onion bhaji, rice and pita bread on a green tablecloth.

Finally, I was ready to eat. I assembled my dishes along with some rice and naan bread, and dug in. The aloo gobi was fantastic, the soft potatoes and the slightly crunchy cauliflower blending together well with the balanced mixture of spices. The paneer was a thousand times better than my last attempt, though the strange sweetness still bothered me. The onion bhajia were hot and crispy, if a little messy and oily with a hint of grittiness from the extra flour. As I ate the meal, I noticed that I was feeling more and more agitated, but couldn’t figure out why.

That’s when it clicked. Despite my partner clearly enjoying it, all I could taste in the meal was the imperfections. Once I realized that, however, I was able to step back, think critically, better appreciate the hard work and effort I had put in, and finally enjoy each dish for its positive qualities. I’ve noticed that the more time I spend cooking, the more I tend to be critical of my work. This is okay, and it can be useful in moderation, but I’ve also found it can cloud my judgement and stop me from enjoying what I’ve made.

So, that’s it! The end. No big reveal here; I’m just trying to be kinder to myself and enjoy the journey. Working on it, anyway. This series has given me a place to explore those feelings and share my joys and mistakes with others, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity. Ultimately, the food that I made this month was excellent and I encourage you to borrow Vegetarian India or any of Jaffrey’s cookbooks and try something new yourself! And if you have any memorable paneer-based disasters in your past that you feel the need to overcome, check out these resources from our collection for more guidance and inspiration:

Don’t forget to join us next month when I finally give in to the hottest quarantine craze of 2020 and learn to make sourdough bread with Ken Forkish’s bread-baking manual, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast.

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