Monday, October 16, 2006

Food, Magical Food: Madhur Jaffrey Edition

Yesterday, cooking up some ground beef (it was a lamb recipe, but we’re on a budget this month after the birthday bacchanal and beef was in the freezer) with tomatoes and peas, I had a real sense of the magic of cooking. It’s a Madhur Jaffrey recipe from her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking: a cookbook that has been utterly dependable for me. The recipes are genuinely easy and I am always amazed to discover, after forty minutes or so, that I have put together something that tastes like Indian food to me.

Her recipes are great the way that Julia Child’s are: she describes clearly and concisely each step of a recipe that is truly alchemical. Patricia Wells writes great recipes, as do the folks from Cook’s magazine, but the food they’re asking you to cook doesn’t metamorphose in front of your eyes. They just help you take a chicken that’s raw and turn it into a cooked one. No small feat, but not magic. Magic is going from butter, flour, and milk to a perfect b├ęchamel.

Jaffrey consistently amazes me. It’s as if she’s working magic through me, so little do I know about Indian cooking, so good does her food taste.

Take the beef recipe. You pulverize a bunch of garlic, ginger, and onions into a finely chopped paste and throw them into a generous bit of heated oil. Already, the kitchen changes. But then, you add two spices (tumeric & cayenne) and two seeds (cumin & cardamom) to the mix. It changes color. There’s suddenly depth to the flavor befitting eight ingredients—but, for all the opening of jars and measuring, it’s not super hard. Then, you add another layer: yogurt (always magical heated, I think) and tomato. Only then do you add the meat, salt, and more spice (garam masala). After twenty minutes, it’s chile, cilantro, lemon, and a whole bunch of frozen peas (a decidely underrated gem, I think). And that’s dinner.

When I was in college, I remember going through the cafeteria line with my friend from Pakistan. We were trying to figure out what was edible that day. She complained that all the meat had an unpleasantly meat-y taste, that she was not used to eating meat that tasted like meat. My friend is one of the smartest people I know. One of her great gifts to me in our youth were little wayside observations like this—suddenly something about American cuisine (haute and low) was clear: we like meat-flavored meat and not everyone does.

I admire Jaffrey’s powers of translation: she helped me make my very ordinary ShopRite 85% lean meat taste less like meat.

I see from Michelle that Jaffrey has a memoir out. I’ll have to add it to my wishlist…

1 comment:

Victoria/Beachcomber said...

I just borrowed a chunk of this recipe to post on an EZ board I'm on. I love this M.J. recipe, too. You happen to have done an amazing job of describing it. Much better than my efforts would have been!