November 10, 2014 4:23 pm •
The cookbook book club gathered together for an absolutely dreadful meal last week. What a fun night. We had a riotous evening in which we all united in hating just about every dish we made. As host and the person who selected the book, I can humbly take credit for ensuring this most excellent good time.
The cookbook I chose focused on breads from around the world, with dishes to go with them. Its intrepid, globe-trotting authors had talked their way into home kitchens to collect recipes from countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Norway. Everything looked yummy, and the book was a James Beard award winner, so it seemed like a sure thing.
Plus, it was my kind of book, part cookbook and part travelogue. As you have probably noticed from my eclectic recipe selections in this column, I’m a big fan of world cuisines. I love the way the food of a country opens a window into its culture. I find my efforts to duplicate exotic foods in my kitchen give me an appreciation and greater understanding of the lives of the people of that culture. It’s just like traveling, but without the inconvenience of having to renew one’s passport or arrange for a cat sitter.
Not having been outside the country in several months, I was happy to be traveling again, even if it was only virtually. And this book was like my pet fantasy of going to the international terminal and just picking a destination at random. Such a big world! So many choices!
I guess the others must have felt the same way. With most of the continents beckoning, our club members all headed to different corners of the globe.
Which might have been our big mistake.
Selections ranged from Georgia (the country, not the state) to Vietnam to Ethiopia, and several other far-flung regions. Individually, the dishes sounded great (although, unfortunately, mostly greater than they actually tasted. What is with all these recipes that don’t use salt? Is the whole world hypertensive?). Even the ones that turned out to be duds would probably have been fine with a bit more salt, especially if the entire meal had drawn only from that one country’s cuisine. Dishes from the same place tend to complement one another.
But each of our under-salted dishes was on its own, like a beleaguered U.N. ambassador trying to represent its country to the best of its ability during the food equivalent of an acrimonious debate at the U.N. General Assembly — and with about the same degree of harmony.
It turns out foods are an even better window into national cultures than I thought. Alas, what our meal showed is that we are still very far from achieving world peace. Putting our dishes together brought out their warring instincts.
The meal was a bit too much like the world on a plate — complete with widespread terrorism.
The fiery sauce on my Ethiopian chicken attempted incursions into the cool fruit and yogurt curry from India. The cold, clammy texture of the injera I made to go with it (basically a salt-free crepe made from steamed wallpaper paste) weirded everybody out and set off further border skirmishes with the under-salted Moroccan carrots and Szechuan eggplant. The unwieldy Vietnamese wraps respected the no-fly zone, but only because we kept them well guarded and served them as a separate course. The low-salt Georgian cheese bread was heavy enough that it could easily be used as a weapon — though the Afghani whole-wheat apple turnovers were certainly tough enough to stand up to it.
It was a hilarious meal and a great night, but I have to say that (in addition to indigestion) it left me a bit discouraged about prospects for peace. If even our individual recipes couldn’t get along, what hope is there for the sects, tribes, religions and nations of the world?
But I also found a glimmer of hope. Despite the clashing cultures represented by our recipes, the disjointed meal brought our group together in rare unanimity.
In the spirit of international cooperation, we were all more than willing to share the salt shaker.
Buttery Rice with Spinach
From “660 Curries” by Raghavan Iyer
I’m deliberately not naming the cookbook we used, as I think the juxtaposition of our recipe selections was at least as much to blame as the recipes themselves, and I don’t want to malign it unfairly (though the authors really do need to learn the phrase “salt to taste”). But I’m also not giving you a recipe from it, as there wasn’t one on the table that I intend to repeat ever again.
Instead, I’m reverting to the fabulous Indian dinner I told you about last time, cooked by my friend Raghavan, which included this simple and delicious variation on a rice pilaf that you must try. In his cookbook, he credits its invention to our mutual friend Jeff Mandel, who deserves major kudos. It’s my new favorite side dish, and versatile: unlike the dishes in our cookbook club meal, this one easily spans cultures without clashing. It would be equally good served with curry, roast chicken or grilled salmon.
1 cup basmati rice
2 Tbsp. ghee (clarified butter) or butter
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 medium red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
3 cups fresh spinach, coarsely chopped or 1 package (1 pound) chopped frozen spinach
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
In a medium-sized bowl, cover the rice with water and gently wash it 3 or 4 times, draining the water when it becomes cloudy and repeating until it is relatively clear. Drain. Fill the bowl with fresh cold water and let the rice sit in it at room temperature until the grains soften, 20-30 minutes, then drain.
Melt the ghee or butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they sizzle and turn reddish brown, 5-10 seconds. Then stir in the onion and a handful of spinach. Turn the heat down to medium and stir until the greens wilt. Repeat with more handfuls of spinach until it has all been added. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated and the onion has turned soft and honey-brown, 15-20 minutes.
Add the drained rice and toss it gently with the spinach mixture. Add 1 1/2 cups cold water and the salt, stirring to incorporate. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook uncovered and without stirring until the water has evaporated and craters start to appear in the rice, 5-8 minutes. Stir once to bring the mixture from the bottom of the pan to the top. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, turn the heat to its lowest setting and cook without opening the lid for 8 or 10 minutes. (Raghavan says 8 minutes for electric stoves and 10 minutes for gas). Then turn off the heat and let the rice sit undisturbed for 10 more minutes.
Fluff with a fork and serve.
Betty Teller thinks the secret to world peace as well as world cuisine is salt. Tell her your theory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or tell her in person at the Appellation Trail tasting Nov. 21 at the CIA, where she’s sure the dishes will all be properly seasoned.