An Armchair Visit to India

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As my nest has emptied, we have begun to consume more fish.

With the picky teens out of the house, there’s no one to sneer at my salmon or snapper. Add the fact that the grocery bills have fallen, enabling me to buy more expensive proteins for deserving husband and deserving self.

I’ve written frequently about simple fish dishes — grilled, roasted and pan-fried — with various sauces and flavor profiles. But I recently had the good fortune to spend an afternoon at the home of a friend who was born and raised in Bombay while she prepared a dinner of fish curry.


The recipe is a bit more involved than my standard “salt/pepper/oil fish, roast 15 minutes, pour sauce over, roast 2 more minutes and serve.” But it is not terribly complicated. The trick is to procure the correct ingredients; several of the spices, such as ground coriander and turmeric, may not be found in every kitchen, but they are readily available at the supermarket.

My friend used branzino for this dish with great results, but any firm, flaky fish would work. I’d avoid super-delicate varieties like flounder and sole, but just about anything else is fair game.

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Fish Curry

Serves four

For the curry:

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 or 3 whole dried chilis, or ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes
  • ½ cup coconut milk, well stirred

For the fish:

  • 1½ pounds firm, fresh fish fillets
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium and sauté the onions, garlic, ginger and spices until fragrant.

Lower the heat and continue cooking the mixture until the onions are soft and nearly disintegrating, about 20 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, prepare the fish: Place the fillets on a plate and rub both sides with salt and turmeric. Allow the fish to sit for about 10 minutes. Heat your oven to 400 degrees, and roast the fish for 10 minutes until just about cooked through. Remove it from the oven and set it aside.

When the onions have dissolved into a thick mush, add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet, then stir and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the coconut milk, stir and simmer for about 5 minutes.

About 30 minutes before serving, place the fish in the sauce. Bring it to a low boil once, then cover and simmer for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld. You want the fish to absorb the curry flavor and heat through, but you do not want to cook the fish to the point of falling apart.

Cheater Indian Pepper “Pickle”

Pickles in India are complex, fermented preparations whose recipes are passed down through generations. They are served as condiments with most meals and are made with everything from mangoes to limes to peppers and a multitude of spices and seeds.

I have neither the time nor the knowledge to prepare these mysteriously delicious elixirs, but my friend taught me a simple cheater version of pickled peppers that she served alongside her fish curry. With hot peppers in season through the early fall, this is a great way to use them and enjoy them for months to come.

To clarify, this is not a traditional pickle — it is not fermented, it requires refrigeration and it soaks in oil as opposed to multiple spices, vinegar and/or the juice of the fruit or vegetable being pickled. But in terms of adding a burst of flavor via a spicy condiment, it delivers.

Admittedly, this is a straightforward flavor and lacks the complexity of traditional pickles, which are spicy, tangy, sour, aromatic and sweet all at once.  This condiment delivers heat and garlic — but you could add anything you wish — bay leaves, juniper berries, slices of ginger, curry leaves, etc., to expand the flavor profile.

This is wonderful mixed in just about anything that warrants a bit of a kick. A tablespoon in the fish curry above enhances the flavor nicely; just add it to the sauce while it simmers. I’ve also used this in chicken and tuna salad, mixed with rice and yogurt (see below), with tacos, on sandwiches mixed with mayo and in marinades.

A note on the peppers: I used jalapenos because I was given a bag by a gardening friend. The quantity below is based on jalapenos, which are rather large for a chili pepper. If you use a smaller pepper, such as a Thai chili, you may need to use more peppers to fill the jar.

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Cheater Indian Pickle

Makes about 1 cup

  • 10 jalapeno or other hot peppers, washed, dried thoroughly and chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Approximately 1 cup canola oil

Place the chopped peppers, sliced garlic and salt in a jar, alternating the ingredients to ensure that they are evenly distributed.

Fill the jar with oil.

Shake and refrigerate.

Rice and Dahee

Serves one

In Hindi, the word for yogurt is pronounced “dahee.” Yogurt is ubiquitous on Indian tables; it is served as a cooling sauce called “raita” mixed with cucumber and mint. It is the key ingredient in lhassi, the refreshing fruit and yogurt drink. It is also used in sauces and marinades. Often, a version of this rice and dahee, or “curd rice,” is among the first solid foods fed to Indian children.

I was inspired to mimic this simple staple food for lunch one recent afternoon when I had leftover brown basmati rice in my fridge and not much else. I ate this hot, but it is perfectly acceptable cold. My uncharacteristically bare cupboard offered only the cheater chili pickle as a mix in, and lunch was a flavorful and healthy bowl of good.

If you don’t have the chili pickle, you can just enjoy the rice and yogurt plain or add any flavor you like — chopped ginger and cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice, tahina dressing, some toasted cumin seeds, salt, your favorite spice blend … the possibilities are endless.

  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • ½ cup yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon (or to taste) cheater pepper pickles

Mix all ingredients, heat if desired and enjoy.

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