The cart on 46th and 6th Ave has THE BEST chicken from a cart and arguably better than most Indian restaurants. The tender chicken was perfectly cooked and had very fragrant spices. In the chicken tikka, you could taste a different spice in every bite! My only caveat is that I went during rush hour so the turnover is very high. I’m not sure if the quality goes down as the hours pass and it gets less crowded, but I am guessing it probably does.
It may not be terribly authentic, but this is how I like to make my saag paneer. I’ve read through a lot of different recipes and have tried many different versions, but after many hours in the kitchen, this is what I ended up with. Obviously if you have different taste buds, you’ll like different things. I know some love adding lots of cloves and our favorite Christmas spices: nutmeg/cinnamon, etc, but I keep it relatively simple. You can get just about everything from your Indian grocer (including fresh spinach that is much cheaper than the supermarket).
Wash and cut the raw spinach to one inch segments and use a deep pan with very little water at the bottom to cook through. I would use minimal water because the spinach will release it’s own water. This part when I first tried it involved some improv where I cooked it first then cut it, which required more energy to squeeze out all the soupy water (otherwise leaving you a big mess). I also had to cool it down before cutting for obvious reasons. I’ve also read a lot of recipes where the spinach is completely puréed but I prefer to have some texture as opposed to soupy sauce.
Cut up the onions and throw it into a pan to cook through. Add the cherry tomatoes when the onions are halfway done. I like my tomatoes not cooked all the way through to get than tangy freshness.
When the spinach is done, drain the excess water and add in the onion and tomato mixture. Add in salt, 2 tablespoons of coriander powder, and let simmer while preparing the paneer.
Sear the paneer cubes in enough ghee to coat the pan. In restaurants you normally don’t find the cubes browned, but that’s how I like mine!
Add the paneer to the spinach mixture.
From here I put my mixture of three pinches of red chili powder, five ground up cardamom pods (not the shell, just the insides), and three cloves. Finally, I added two pinches of garam masala and folded it in. Let it rest for a few minutes on a low flame then serve. Garam masala has the the delicate AND spicy spices in it, so in order to preserve the delicate quality you add it in the end.
Since I’m a cilantro fanatic, I tend to cut up excessive amounts of it and finely chop the stem and put it into my mixture so as not to let anything go to waste.
Indian spices shouldn’t be as intimidating to you as it was to me. I think I now understand why I thought Indian cooking was this foreign realm that I wouldn’t be able to touch: because of the foreign flavors.
A simple solution to understanding cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom is to start adding it to black tea (with milk and sugar). It’s funny, but I had always known about this “spiced” tea and the Chinese in me refused to believe that it would possibly taste good compared to my straight green and black teas without milk or sugar. You can isolate all of them, or you can start with one then keep adding so you understand each one and have a good memory of what is what! (fundamental for figuring out which is which when you are cooking, and what you still need to add into an incomplete dish)
Oh man… “chai” is so delicious and one easy way to acquaint yourself with these spices. Everyday you feel like drinking tea, only use one of the ingredients (a little at first, and more in future batches if you like it). I have it down to a science that I actually prefer mine with only cardamom and a small amount of clove.
As for cumin, tumeric, coriander, and mustard seeds, I recommend trying them with chicken if you are a meat eater one at a time similar to the chai concept. One of my favorite chicken dishes is just the chicken smothered in coriander powder, salt, pepper, and garlic.
Spices Used at the Destination, not in the Journey
Something I realized about my approach to these spices is that I don’t expect the flavor to seep in over long cooking times–if anything most everything is ground up so I expect to have a bit of the flavor in every bite, or I use so much of it that I will definitely taste it. It’s not like cooking down chicken to get the chicken flavor in a soup, nor is it using tons of peppercorns or basil to flavor a stew only to take out the peppercorns in the end. This is probably because I am mostly cooking vegetarian dishes with strong vegetable flavors, and not necessarily creating a stew where the chicken needs to absorb the flavors.
It is definitely possible my approach isn’t right, but so far in most of the recipes I’ve read for basic vegetarian dishes, I haven’t been very wrong.
I’m still an amateur, but I used to find Indian spices to be really intimidating. I was your typical NYC Indian food enthusiast who’d spend $16 on an entree plus the $4/5 breads or rice (YIKES). Just like my last arepas post, I started to realize how I probably overestimated the basic Indian dishes. Also, that Saag Paneer you’ve been ordering is really full of oil and grease which I didn’t even think of before. Have you seen it leftover the next day with that thick yellow layer on top? EEK!
If you read your basic recipes online a lot of them won’t give you enough information. Many will say just to have garam masala added to the other contents of your dish, but that would be your first mistake! Garam masala is essentially just a blend of spices that you can either have a prepped special house blend of, grind as needed, or purchased from your grocer (though this is not recommended because the spices lose flavors). First thing wrong with only having garam masala is that you can’t really tweak your recipe further if you don’t have the spices individually, and second is that it is meant as a finishing powder–mostly added at the end. At first, I didn’t believe my friends telling me that because I was always taught to roast your spices in oil before cooking with them to bring out the flavor, but it makes sense after you look at the ingredients inside with things like cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise.
So the way I started was without a true recipe, but a general understanding that I needed spices, ghee, the solid veggies I wanted in my dish, and the protein. One of my friends recommended the box spices from MDH, so I just grabbed a Kitchen King blend (which he added to all his dishes…haha), and bought individual packets of all the spices listed. Basically, I was winging it. I started with cardamom (green pods, not the powder), cumin seeds (not powder), tumeric (the stuff that makes everything yellow-beware of potential stains, including your teeth!), mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander powder, red chili powder, and amchur powder (not included on the box, but highly recommended).
It can be pretty pricey, so I recommend passing by a Patel Bros in Jersey or CT to buy your spices (and veggies if you are ready to cook them!). Everything is about 30% cheaper than the Manhattan stores, if not 50%. I would definitely avoid getting any of these ingredients in a fancy shop or regular grocery store, and try to find an Indian grocer.
What happens after you have all your spices? You have to know what you are working with. I think tasting each spice by itself at least once is key (tips in my next post), but smelling works once you are familiar with the taste. You can grind things or put them in whole, but of all the ingredients I only really grind up are the more fragrant ones since the flavor isn’t really sitting and developing: cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
I think the most basic and best advice is to cook to taste. I would start with some heated ghee in a pan, with some cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and tumeric. At first, I wouldn’t be very generous with these, maybe half a tablespoon of each cumin seeds and tumeric, and a tablespoon of mustard seeds. I’m not an expert, but from there I’d cook your veggies (a 4 person serving) and add in your mixture (the same way when you stir-fry Chinese food, you’d cook up your broccoli, then add the sauce). After that, add in anything else you want–especially the chili powder, and a generous amount of coriander powder (maybe 3 tablespoons even). Finally, add in the more fragrant spices like the cinnamon, cardamum, cloves, and nutmeg. I realized the first time I tried to cook with these spices that something was missing from my dish, so I started adding more coriander powder, and cardamom. It took a while, but eventually I added in amchur powder which gave it a nice tangy bite–and brought everything together.
Another sidenote tip I have is if you want your sauce to be thicker, consider pureeing some of your vegetables, like cauliflower or broccoli. If you want a creamier texture, use cream, milk, or yogurt.