Immigrant Kitchens: North Indian

Cooking boot camp: Use all your burners
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  March 6, 2014


GO ALL OUT Four burners = fabulous flavors

A friend once told me that he’d never seen anyone cook with all four burners at once. It never dawned on him that this was even possible. There are many situations in our daily life where technical capability surpasses actual usage — like when we drive our sport utility vehicles on suburban roads to get sushi at Whole Foods. But what if we all started doing what we could do, rather than just the bare minimum, the familiar routine? As I imagine us tearing up every last square inch of wilderness in a frenzy of off-roading madness, I take that back. But what harm could there be in the adventure of using all four burners at once?

Check the expiration date on your fire extinguisher, because I have the perfect four-burner meal for you to try. I just witnessed Hermeet Kohli, from Delhi, India, cooking her son’s favorite Indian meal for his birthday: North Indian kidney bean curry (rajma), rice with peas (jira), spiced potatoes, yogurt sauce, and flatbread (roti). It’s all vegetarian. None of the dishes in themselves were hard to cook, and it really was a treat to sit before a plate piled with fully realized, distinct flavors.

Hermeet started off making her Punjabi version of curry paste by slowly cooking pureed onions, ginger, garlic, tomato paste, turmeric, and Indian chili powder. The pureed ingredients had to cook for an hour and a half to become a paste, and she stood there stirring most of the time. “Once you burn your onions, you’ll have to start all over again,” she warned me after about an hour. Since she’s a busy professor of social work at University of Southern Maine and a mom, Hermeet does have a slew of short cuts she uses to keep her family well-fed.

“Sometimes I get frozen cut potatoes from Trader Joes,” she says, “and when I cook, I cook a lot.” For example, she makes about 10 times more curry paste than she’ll need and then freezes extra portions. With these she can easily whip up any variety of Punjabi curry after work — chicken, prawn, beans, or potatoes and peas. When she does eventually run out of homemade curry paste, and she doesn’t have time to make another batch, she’ll use a canned Indian curry paste from Shaw’s with pretty good results. In a real pinch, she’ll use a jar of tomato sauce and simply add Indian spices, onions, and garlic.

While the curry paste was growing thicker on one burner, Hermeet used another quadrant of the stove to sauté whole cumin seeds with onion slices in oil; she then added basmati rice and peas to the mixture.

On yet another burner, she was frying potato slivers with turmeric, cumin, coriander, Indian chili powder, dried mint, and salt. And on the fourth burner, she used a pressure cooker to prepare kidney beans in water.

When the curry paste was thick and holding together as a solid mass, Hermeet added a large spoonful of it to the beans along with garam masala, funugreek leaves, coriander leaves (a/k/a cilantro), and more salt. When the potatoes, rice, and beans were done, she rolled out discs of roti dough, which inflated like pufferfish as they were heating up on the skillet.

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