When I came to India, I discovered a way of cooking that slowly started unraveling all those tense, knotted wires in my brain.
I find that I always need a way to think about something. A philosophy or vision, I guess. So, the way I've started to look at food, and Indian cooking in particular, is as a combination of fresh ingredients, rocking the beans, and understanding the players.
So, today I'm going to start introducing you to the players, and to rocking the beans.
Seriously, you need to rock the beans. Look at these beans. They're so dry! So cheap! So healthy! Indian mamas know how to cook beans, and I've been fortunate enough to learn from a couple of them.
This is a recipe for Rajma. Meet Rajma. Rajma, meet the readers.
Rajma is a type of small kidney bean. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think you could also use pinto beans for this recipe. (I'll test it when I'm back in the U.S. this summer.)
So: preparation of dried beans. You need to soak them overnight, the day before you cook them, and then rinse them completely before boiling them. I can't recommend a pressure cooker enough. I cook beans with a pressure cooker by allowing three blasts of the cooker on high, then turning them off completely. It takes way less time. If you are simply boiling them, give yourself a couple of hours and make sure they're really soft. They won't be good if they're crunchy. You can fill the water up to an inch about the beans, in the pressure cooker.
(In the following dish I used 500 g of rajma and boy did we have a lot of beans. If you make as much as I did, you will be able to freeze some, which could be a good idea. Or you can cut the recipe in half.)
Okay. The players! The players are a special combination of vegetables and spices that you can add to or take away from, to make a base for almost any vegetable that you want to cook. I often opted not to cook Indian food in the past because the long list of ingredients made my eyes cross. Now that I know them as the players, I don't even think about that long list.
This dish is a little different from some of the others that I'll write about, because I take some of the players and cook them ahead of time so that I can blend them to make a gravy.
I'll give you some basic amounts, but the beauty of learning to cook this way is that you can change any recipe to your taste. You like more onions? Add more. Hate garlic? Only add a little. (I can't in good conscience tell you not to add any.)
These are the vegetable players:
Onions: (for 250 g of beans, use two small onions or one large onion. Chop them into small pieces, not too small, because you're going to blend them anyways.)
Tomatoes: (Use two small tomatoes or one big one. Chop them into small diced pieces.)
This is me with my tomatoes.
Garlic and ginger: I use this awesome paste which makes my life wonderful. I use two teaspoons or so of the paste, or about an inch of grated ginger and three cloves of grated garlic. (But no measuring!)
And a small green chili. This is entirely to taste. Use as much or as little as you want, and you can add red chili powder for more spice, which can be more controllable, because you know how some chillies are so much spicier than others and there is just no way of knowing which ones! Slit the chili lengthwise and then chop it into teeny tiny pieces.
Begin by heating about four tablespoons of oil in a wok (Woks are best because you'll need to cook the spices in the oil, later) and adding the onions. You want to cook on a medium or low heat.
When the onions look like this (you know, all soft and see through, yum!) add the garlic and ginger and chili. Cook them for about two minutes, and then add the tomatoes.
Then you want to cook them all until they look like this:
There is this thing that happens where the oils start to separate from the tomatoes or something something blah blah blah, I don't know what I'm talking about but watch for it! This is when they're ready, when they are soft and oily see through liquid comes out of them. Okay? Technical enough?
Put the veggie players aside to cool.
Now, there are spice and herb players too. These are the Indian ones, and a lot of countries have their own spice players. Some have almost none. India has a heck of a lot. I've omitted a couple that seem really hard to find, but here are the ones I think you'll manage to locate. (Many big cities have Indian supermarkets, and you can search around online for distributors.)
Introducing: Jeera. Or, in English, cumin seeds. The single best spice in all of the world. Seriously, with all that stuff about spice routes and everything- I get it! Jewels? Bleh. Silks? Okay, yeah, they're nice. But just imagine that all you've ever had is pease porridge in the pot, nine days old, and then you discover cumin! Wow. This is about how much I use.
Mustard seeds: These are brown mustard seeds; you can use brown or black. With both of these I use about a tsp, or maybe a little more. Once again, measuring is not important.
Bay leaves. Easy peasy. I use one large bay leaf, or two if I feel a little crazy.
Cinnamon: My friends, I have no idea how easy it is to get cinnamon like this in the Western world. People just pull it out of the jungle here, so it's easy. But you can use the powder if you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO! Be careful how much you use, if you use powder. Half a tsp would be enough. The thing is, which it's a stick like this, only the essence comes out. It's nicer.
This is where I admit that it would have been a lot nicer for photos if I had just clean the pot that I'd cooked the tomatoes and onions in. But my habit is to just reuse it, because I like the crunchy flavorful parts on the sides. And I'm lazy. I have six kids!! I mean, four.
Once again, use some oil, about four tbs, and heat it up a little. Add the cumin seeds, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and mustard seeds. Cook them until they start popping.
Then you need to add the beans. (The cooked beans) Include some of the water that the beans cooked in.
Here are a couple more players that you should add, once you've added the beans and stirred:
Turmeric: The trick to turmeric is that you should only use a little. Stick to half a tsp.
This is something call Kasoori Methi. It's Fenugreek leaves. Let me know if you can find these. They make everything taste so much more Indian, somehow. I love them. I can't get enough of them.
And I didn't include a picture of the salt, but add a tsp of salt.
Now the veggie players should be warmish. Blend them up until they look like this:
And add them to the beans. That's the good stuff. Then stir everything really well and allow it all to cook together for about twenty minutes. We eat this with rice and one other Indian cooked dish, usually vegetables, or maybe with just a salad.
Salt it to taste, at the end. You really want to have enough salt, friends, but don't oversalt it or you'll be kicking yourself.
You know what would be really nice at the end of this post? A photo of the rajma, on a plate, with rice and salad, just the way it would look if you were ready to eat it. Unfortunately I forgot to ask Chinua to take one.
But let's cover the basics again:
The vegetable players:
The spice players:
A bay leaf
Fenugreek Leaves (Kasoori Methi)
If you learn to cook the players, you will be able to make a base that you can add use any vegetables to, at any time. I'll do another post, next week, about vegetables and the players, now that we've covering one of the many fine beans that we share our earth with.
Thanks to Chinua, for the sweet and artsy photos. I'll answer questions in the comments if you have any! Bon Appetit!