Last week, Shannon and I decided to have an early dinner in the park and squeeze the very last little drops of summer sun into our bodies. We grabbed some fried chicken from a cute little place and ate in the grass while the sun set. It was very peaceful, romantic and satisfying.
No. Wait. I’m wrong. It was not satisfying in the least. The chicken was tasteless. Low salt, no seasoning; I forgot what I had eaten before I even finished it.
And I was reminded of a client.
I have had a lot of interesting clients with strange eating habits. I’ve had clients with heart problems, clients on chemo, clients with delicate digestive systems and then, of course, clients on diets. A few years ago I was hired by a lovely young actress who had very special dietary requirements. She would not tolerate any salt. Or sugar. Or butter. Or oil. It was amazing. I was dubious as to how she enjoyed anything – and doubtful that our connection would last long – but I’m always up for a challenge. I tried to find dishes that would thrill her by cooking with no-fat, salt-free broths, lemon juice, and other sugar free juices. I remember saying to her that it was really difficult to cook unsalted proteins properly without any lubrication in the pan. She suggested water. Water. Oh boy. After about 2 months we amicably parted ways. I ran out of tricks when I ran out of interest. I got bored with the challenge because life is too short to live in a flavorless world. She was a very nice person too, but it should be said here, I have eyelashes that weigh more than she does.
I think that salt is misunderstood. I think it should not be considered the solo flavoring tool the way that so many heavy-handed, blockheaded chefs layer it on. Yes, it is necessary, but it’s not the featured flavor. It’s like a great director, not the star. It’s the thing that brings the other flavors to life. If you were to marinate something in twelve exciting spices with no salt, you’d be irritated with the taste you’d created. The spices would have nothing to hold on to. It’s true across the board too. I’ve tasted birthday cake that had no salt in it and I could tell immediately. Flavors wander aimlessly around your mouth with no direction. Sure there’s sugar, but sugar without salt is cloying. Salt is like the CEO in your food. On its own it can be overbearing and annoying but with a team it can be an amazingly successful leader.
I am lucky to live in New York where ingredients from anywhere in the world can be found. There is no better example of that than Kalustyan’s Spice and Specialty Food Mart in Little India on Lexington and 28th street. There are so few places in the world where you can know you can absolutelyguaranteedwithoutanyquestionatall find every spice and seasoning you’re looking for, Indian or not. I’m like a kid in a candy store every time I walk in. …Dried Mango Powder, Vietnamese Cinnamon Sticks, Ground Fennel, Java Curry, Licorice Root, Persian Saffron… there’s no way for me to feel stuck when I’m there. By walking in, the world has opened to me. …Ground Lemongrass, Dried Black Currants, Stoneground Blue Cornmeal, Spinach Powder, Coconut Sugar, Chestnut Flour … I could go on, but I just drooled on my keyboard. This place is full of limitless combinations of deliciousness. “What can you imagine” is the only problem you need to solve.
I want to say that the prices in Kalustyan’s are so cheap it’s like you’re actually shopping in India, but I cannot. I will say that if “Spice Islands” or “McCormick” owned this store I’d be bankrupt by now. In other words, it’s not the cheapest, but you never feel you’re getting ripped off. You also never feel patronized by any of the employees. Everyone is earnestly there to help and not egotistical about how vast the selection is.
Here is one of my favorite things to make with the spices I find at Kalustyans, though these spices can be found anywhere. I love Samosas, but every recipe I found was disappointingly mellow. These are full of flavor and spice and are worthy of your finest guests. They are a bit of a production, so give yourself ample time to prepare them, but they can be pre filled and shaped and then live in your freezer until you’re ready to fry and serve.
Potato, Pea and Fennel Samosas
Makes enough filling for 25 Samosas (plus a little extra for lunch)
- 1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
- 2 tablespoon Fennel Seeds
- 2 tablespoon ground Cumin
- ½ teaspoon Turmeric
- ¼ cup Vegetable Oil
- 1 Onion, chopped
- 4 Serrano or Jalapeño Chilies, seeded and chopped fine
- 4-inch piece fresh Gingerroot, peeled and grated fine
- 4 Garlic cloves, minced
- ½ pound chopped frozen Spinach
- 1 cup frozen Spring Peas
- 2 tablespoons fresh Cilantro, chopped fine
Ready to stuff!
- Simmer the whole Potatoes in a pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes until they are soft but not squishy. Drain and let cool.
- Chop Potatoes into ¼ inch dice.
- In a large dry pan, toast the Fennel Seeds, Cumin and Turmeric for a few minutes until they darken and smell fantastic, stirring often. Add the Oil and then the Onion and sauté for a few minutes.
- Add the Chiles, Ginger and Garlic, stirring to make sure the Garlic does not burn.
- Add the chopped Potatoes and stir fry till the Potatoes get a little color.
- Add the Spinach, Peas and Cilantro and sauté for another minute or two, blending the flavors together.
- Season with Salt and Pepper.
(from Julie Sahni’s Indian Regional Classics)
Makes 25 wrappers
- 3 cups all purpose Flour, plus additional flour for dusting
- ½ teaspoon Nigella Seeds (or 1 teaspoon dried Oregano)
- ¼ teaspoon Baking Soda
- 12 tablespoons warm Water
- 6 tablespoons melted Ghee or clarified Butter
- 4 tablespoons plain Yogurt
- 1 teaspoon coarse Salt
- 4 tablespoons of Cornstarch, dissolved in 6 tablespoons of Water
- Combine the Flour, Nigella and Baking Soda in a large bowl. Whisk together Water, Ghee, Yogurt and Salt in a small bowl until combined.
- Add the dry ingredients and stir until the dough comes together. Gather into a ball.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until elastic, about 5 minutes.
- Use a rolling pin to roll dough out to ¼ inch thick sheet.
- Using a 3 inch round cookie cutter, cut 12 circles.
- Cut the circles in half.
- Brush half of each straight edge with Cornstarch mixture. Form a cone by folding the second half of the straight edge over the first half and pinch the seam to seal.
- Hold the cone with the open end up. Fill the cone with 1-2 teaspoons of filling (you will get a feel for how much you can put in and still get it closed).
- Brush one side of the open end with the Cornstarch mixture.
- Pinch the open sides together to enclose the filling.
- Fry in 3 inches of vegetable oil, heated to 375 degrees for about 5 minutes each, or freeze for later use.
When I found this Peach Chutney recipe I almost cried. The combination of fresh peaches, vinegar, walnuts, red pepper flakes makes this a showstopper. It’s perfect with samosas and about 200 other things I can think of. I love to make a few batches when peaches are in season (I think we’ve got another week), and freeze them for the year. Enjoy!
(Also from from Julie Sahni’s Indian Regional Classics)
Makes 4 Cups
- 2 pounds Peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (about 4 cups)
- 1 cup White Wine Vinegar
- 1 ½ cups packed Light Brown Sugar
- 2 tablespoons julienned fresh Ginger
- ½ teaspoon Saffron Threads
- 1 teaspoon Mustard Seeds
- 1 teaspoon Fennel Seeds
- ½ teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
- 1 cup Dark Raisins
- 1 cup Walnuts
- Put the Peaches in a large pan. Add the Vinegar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook the Peaches until barely tender but not cooked through, about 7 minutes. Turn off heat and let the Peaches sit in the liquid for 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fruit to a bowl, leaving the liquid in the pan.
- Add the Brown Sugar, Ginger, Saffron, Mustard, Fennel, and Red Pepper Flakes to the liquid in the pan and bring back to a boil over high heat. Boil until the syrup turns sticky, about 12 minutes. Add the reserved Peaches and cook until the chutney looks thick and glazed, like a jam, about 8 minutes. Turn off the heat and fold in the Raisins and Walnuts.
- Let chutney ripen one day before serving.