Chettinad Curry

Last week I finally got a chance to try a curry recipe I’ve been intending to make for some time, Chettinad Curry. After having a Chettinad numerous times at various restaurants around the city, I was anxious to try my own hand at this dish. Chettinad curries I’ve had in the past rely heavily on dark and aromatic spices, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, anise, allspice, mace, etc. I worked off a recipe in one of my go-to curry cookbooks, but as usual, I changed the method and some ingredients to suit my cooking style and ingredient stock. I also decided to use chickpeas, where normally this recipe would call for chicken. As usual, I treat most curry recipes as a recipe for sauce that can be used on any sort of meat or vegetable (or in my case, legume). Here is the result:

Chettinad CurrySARAH’S CHETTINAD CURRY

2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1/2 cup grated coconut
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 green cardamoms
scant 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 cup oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon anise
1 teaspoons red pepper (cayenne or paprika, depending on your heat tolerance)
1 (15oz) can of diced tomatoes in juice
1 tablespoons lime juice
2 (14oz) cans of chickpeas, drained, or 1 lb. meat (cubed) or vegetables
1 (14oz) can of coconut milk
fresh cilantro or coriander chutney for garnish

Combine all ingredients up to and including lime juice in the bowl of a food processor and puree. Transfer to a pan and saute the mixture for a few minutes, then add the meat, vegetable or legume or your choice. Add the coconut milk and stew until your contents reach their desired doneness. Meat can be stewed covered for a few hours, chickpeas could simply be heated through, or cooked until some of the liquid evaporates for a thicker sauce. Serve with rice and/or bread. Garnish with cilantro or chutney.

So, this recipe was quite tasty. The only thing was I’m not entirely sure it really tasted like a Chettinad Curry… or at least not quite like the Chettinad curries I’ve had in restaurants. I understand that Chettinad cuisine is probably quite varied and the curries called “Chettinad” on a menu may just be a small sampling. I also took a good bit of liberty by using coconut milk instead of the larger amount of grated coconut called for in the recipe. The poppy seeds didn’t strike me as particularly like any Chettinad curry I had before, and yet I much enjoyed the flavor they added.

In sum, I enjoyed this curry very much, and though it was not what I had expected, it was ultimately quite delicious and a dish I will certainly make again.

Curry In Brief

You may consider this blog a follow-up to my last, “Butter Chicken Adventures.”  Last night, I tried another recipe from Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India. It is the recipe that fronts the main recipe section of the book, and is on a page titled “Making a Simple Homestyle Curry.” Here is the recipe as I found it:

4 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4-inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped
3/4 teaspoon coriander powder
a pinch of tumeric powder
1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
1/4 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 teaspoon paprika powder
2 tomatoes, chopped
salt
chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

1) Heat the oil in a heavy pan. Add the onion and saute over a medium heat for about 20-25 minutes or until deep brown. Add the garlic and ginger and fry for 1 minute. Add the coriander powder and stir for another full minute. Then add the turmeric, cumin, garam masala, and paprika, and saute for 30 seconds. Add 1 cup of water and cook for 10 minutes. Put in the tomatoes, stir well, and cook for a further 5 minutes.

2) Now the curry sauce is ready. Add salt to taste. Put in … chicken, lamb, fish or vegetables. Add 1 1/2 cups of water for chicken, 2 1/2 cups for lamb, 1 cup for fish, 2 cups for vegetables. Cook until done. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro leaves just before serving.

I followed this recipe more or less exactly, except instead of fresh tomatoes I used canned. I doubled the entire recipe, so there would be leftovers, except I did not double the water at the end; I used broccoli and chickpeas as my veggies. Two thoughts: one, as with my previous curry from this book, I found – and this time, Ted also found – this dish to be underflavored. It was a good spice mix, it just wasn’t potent enough. Because of my prior experience with Camellia’s curry, I used heaping spice measurements, but this proved insufficient to combat the problem – all of the flavoring ingredients seem to need doubled (or quadrupled in my case, since I had already doubled all of the ingredients to take the dish from one meant to serve two to one meant to serve four). Two, the sauce was much too watery, something Sarah warned me might happen with the recipes in this book. I cooked off as much of the water as I could before my broccoli began to get too soft, but still – if I were to make this again, I would just omit the last addition of water altogether: the liquid in the can of tomatoes would have more than sufficed, along with the liquid that naturally bleeds off vegetables when they cook. Oh, and be forewarned: getting the onions deep brown actually took more than 30 minutes (though this might have been from my use of two onions instead of one), and required a fair amount of stirring and vigilance to prevent them from burning.

Also … y’know, it just didn’t taste like a restaurant dish.

But it wasn’t bad, and it was certainly healthy, so I’m not saying I wouldn’t recommend it per se.

The New Deviled Egg Craze

Anyone who has known me for a span longer than two years has seen me get on “kicks,” preoccupations of various types that turn into hobbies, habits or regular entries in my repertoire of recipes. My latest cooking craze is deviled eggs.

Salmon Eggs before the pastry bag arrivedIt started a few weeks ago when I was hosting a small cocktail party built primarily around the showcasing of two cheese fondues (another of my culinary kicks). I wanted to feature something else besides just fondue on my hors d’oeuvres menu, but I didn’t want to spend much additional money (since I am generally poor and had already spent my weekly “entertainment budget” on the sum of food and booze). Most easy hors d’oeuvres that came immediately to mind were cheese-based spreads and dips, both of which would be silly accompaniments to fondue. Also, I wanted something finger-food-ish, since the fondue would already require much dipping. Any vegetable-based appetizers I found seemed either too complex for a last minute addition or two expensive (fresh vegetables are not cheap, so even something as simple as crudites was off my list).

At long last I discovered a fairly standard deviled eggs recipe when browsing Food.com. I had never really liked hard-boiled eggs because of the predominance of the egg white; on rare occasions when I do have breakfast eggs, I get them sunny-side up, dip bread in the yolks and leave the cooked whites untouched. But I figured, I didn’t really have to eat them, did I? I was embellishing my menu for the sake of my guests, anyway. I would be happy enough making do with fondue alone, and deviled eggs met my other criteria of being a finger food and being cheap (eggs are under $2 a dozen and I had most of the other ingredients for deviled eggs in my cupboards already)

As with most recipes, however, I’m usually not satisfied just to make the “standard” recipe, especially when a classic food seems ripe for experimentation. I delved further into the online recipe archives before finding two varieties of deviled eggs that seemed promising. The first was a recipe for seafood eggs that gave me a starting place, but ended up largely altered from the original.

Snapware Stackable Egg ContainerSARAH’S SEAFOOD DEVILED EGGS

12 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 can crabmeat or salmon, drained and flaked
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives or green onion
paprika, for sprinkling

Cut eggs in half legnth-wise and scoop out the yolks. In a small bowl or container (I use 3 cup measuring cup), combine yolks, mayo, lemon juice, mustard, pepper, Old Bay, fish and chives. I like to use electric egg beaters because they combine the yolk mixture easily and thoroughly without pulverizing the texture of the fish or eliminating the color flecks of the chives like a food processor or immersion blender would. Once the yolk mixture is combined, spoon the mixture into the yolk halves and chill for at least two hours before serving.

I have made the above recipe twice now, once with crabmeat and once with salmon, and it turned out delicious each time. What I especially like about this recipe is the fact that it produces enough filling really to load up the egg. Since the egg white is my least favorite part (I regard it as something of a protein-rich cracker, i.e. merely a means of yummy yolk delivery), the more of it heaped with filling, the better.

Mango Curry Eggs from the pastry bagThe second deviled egg recipe I tried was the biggest hit with my guests that night, and I cannot deny that it was mighty tasty. This recipe was also a bit altered from the original to suit my aesthetics.

SARAH’S MANGO CURRY DEVILED EGGS

6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon mango chutney
1 tablespoon green onions or chives, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Cut eggs in half length-wise and scoop out the yolks. In a small bowl or container, combine yolks, mayo, mango chutney, green onions, lemon juice, and spices. Once the yolk mixture is combined, spoon the mixture into the yolk halves and chill for at least two hours before serving.

As I found myself having increasing success with deviled egg recipes, and thus found myself making the recipes more frequently, two points of interest arose. The first was logistical. Shelled hard-boiled eggs are slippery characters, and in my first attempts to transport deviled eggs (even just from the refrigerator to the table, but also in the car to other locales) I discovered how easily the finished deviled egg will tip, depositing filling on its neighbor or on the bottom or sides of its container.

Pastry BagThe logical recourse was, of course, to find a plate or container specifically designed for the purpose of corralling deviled eggs. Seems like a simple enough endeavor, but it turns out that finding a deviled egg tray to suit all my needs was a taller order than I imagined. First of all, most of the trays I found were serving plates… all well and good for the table, but without a lid they did me no good (the deviled egg filling will get dry if stored uncovered in the refrigerator). Most of the containers with deviled egg trays and lids were either too cheap (i.e. cheaply made with a dozen bad reviews on Amazon) or too expensive ($40, really? For a plastic deviled egg tray?)

After much investigation I stumbled upon the Snapware Egg-tainer. Not only is it a stackable tupperware-style container designed for deviled egg transportation and storage, but the indented egg trays are plain white and removable so to be attractive for serving on a table that’s a bit classier than a tupperware spread. Unfortunately Amazon failed me on this one. While I did find it on Amazon, it was only offered by third party sellers, and thus saddled with sizable shipping costs. After some further research I found that it was available in-store at my local Bed, Bath and Beyond for $8.99 (two stacked trays for 12 eggs each). So far I’m getting a lot of use out of my trays, and thinking I may have to get another set sometime soon.

Eggs from the pastry bagThe second point of interest as I delved further into deviled egg cookery was aesthetic, namely that most pictures of deviled eggs in cookbooks feature yolks that have been squeezed out through the starred tip of a pastry bag. To give my eggs a professional appearance, I decided to invest in a pastry bag and tip set. My pastry bag research left me a bit confused as to whether I would need a large or small bag, and whether I would need a coupler attachment. In the end I decided on the Ateco Extra Wide Pastry Decorating Tip Set plus a Large Tip Coupler. Unfortunately the tip coupler did not come with instructions on how to install it on the pastry bag, so I decided to try the bag once without it. The tip was difficult to keep in place, so the next time around I decided to use the coupler. To the best of my assessment the only way to install the coupler would be to cut off a small part of the bag; I did and it seems to hold in place well enough (though I do have to remove the coupler for cleaning). The pastry bag allowed me easily to make stylish deviled eggs, but the unfortunate part of the bag is that it’s difficult to get all the filling out in the end. With my curried egg recipe that doesn’t have much extra bulk, this means that I’m scrambling for filling by the time I get to the last eggs. It’s worth making the more attractive, though.

Check back soon as my adventures in deviled eggs continue.

Butter Chicken Adventures

Apparently, it’s White Girls Making Indian Meals Day here on the blog. Hurrah!

A while ago I tweeted that I’d like to take a look at 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi, as it was recommended by Francis Lam, who’s writing I’ve enjoyed on Salon.com and who is also very nice on Twitter. Turned out Sarah owned this book, and she lent it to me.

I have tried in the past to make curries, both Indian and Thai, from recipes gleaned from the Internet; all of them my husband has hated. This is an impediment, surely, since, y’know, that’s half of my cooking audience, generally. One of the problems with cooking for myself and my fuzzier half is that we have very different taste buds, or so it seems. He has a very sensitive palate, and is laid low by what I consider to be very mild levels of spiciness. On the other hand, I prefer very strong flavors and very spicy dishes. He thinks that my taste buds are in some way lacking in efficacy, and he may well be right, but I think this has its advantages: I genuinely like the taste of those bitter, dark green vegetables that one is always being told to consume for health, I can appreciate a good peaty Scotch, and I never look like one of those Middle American, Golden Corral patron-types when I go out to dinner to an “ethnic” restaurant. (A related aside: Nick and I went to lunch at Taste of India last week. There, we overhead one of said Middle Americans lecturing the Indian waiter, “Well, y’know, we Americans like middle-of-the-road stuff – nothing too spicy.” Sigh!)

Anyway. Trying to appease Ted’s delicate taste buds, and trying to make things easy on myself by picking a recipe I already had almost everything for, from Camellia’s cook book I chose Butter Chicken. Here is the recipe as I found it:

2 lb. chicken, skinned quarters, smaller pieces on the bone or boneless pieces (tikkas)
4-5 tablespoons oil

For the marinade:
2 cups plain yogurt
6 cloves garlic
1/2-in square of fresh ginger
2/3 teaspoon red chile powder or paprika
1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
a tiny pinch of tandoori coloring (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lime juice

For the makhani sauce:
1&1/2 lb tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
[Sarah gave me a bag of these – yes, it appeared as though I had a huge bag of weed in my purse.]
3 oz. chilled butter [This amounts to 5 tablespoons, FYI.]
1/2 teaspoon paprika
few drops of vinegar
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
salt
1&1/2 fl oz of light cream
[About 2 tablespoons.]

My kitchen as I made my chicken curry, rice, and veggies.

Butter Chicken in process

I didn’t follow the recipe completely exactly. For one, Camellia wanted me to drain my yogurt in cheese cloth, which I don’t have, and didn’t feel like trying to track down. For two, she has very specific instructions for like, adding spices – “Add such and such, wait 30 seconds, add such and such, stir for a minute, add such and such …” – there’s something about this that just … I don’t know, I’m impatient: the spices went in all at the same time. Finally, instead of fresh tomatoes I used canned crushed tomatoes, since there aren’t any good tomatoes available this time of year anyway, and it saved me the effort of scalding and peeling and smooshing the substandard supermarket tomatoes. Oh, and I omitted the oil from the chicken, because it just didn’t seem necessary.

 

Basically, you put everything in the marinade, mix it well, insert the chicken (I used some free-range, vegetarian-fed, air-chilled, boneless, skinless thighs) and let it sit over night. Then you cook the chicken in the marinade, and make the tomato sauce at the last minute, pouring it in with the marinade-y chicken right before you serve the dish. I also made basmati rice and a mess of vegetables to go with the curry. Ted and friend Roger were my guinea pigs.

A pot full of simmering chicken in yogurt sauce.

The chicken as it cooked in its yogurt marinade.

Some trouble arose. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t drain the yogurt through cheese cloth, but the marinade became VERY watery as the chicken was cooking, such that, though Camellia said to cook the chicken low and covered, I ended up uncovering it and boiling off quite a bit of liquid. Also, I think in the future I would use a leaner cut of meat, as the thighs gave off quite a bit of fat that I had to skim off – actually, I think in the future I’d just make this with chickpeas, but that’s a different point.

 

So how was it received? Well, Ted loved it. Seriously. Roger also seemed to be very much in favor of it. I found it … bland, frankly. I knew that it wasn’t going to be spicy, of course, as I’d specifically picked a recipe that wouldn’t be spicy for Ted’s sake. But mild is not necessarily unflavorful. I felt as though all of the spice measurements should have been doubled. But perhaps that’s just my disabled taste buds talking. It was also a bit too tomato-y, perhaps because I’d used canned tomatoes instead of fresh – fair enough, in the future I suppose I’d try to track down a decent green house tomato or several.

I wish I had a picture of the final dish for you: I took one, but my phone’s camera decided not to save it, in a fit of pique. The dish comes out a creamy, orangey pink, and it presented well: had I had some fresh cilantro, that would have been a welcome vegetal note to add as a garnish.

So, judge for yourself: two yeas and a meh. I’m going to take a run at another curry, I think, before returning to this one, perhaps one that involves a little less dairy. And upon returning to this recipe, which I think Ted will insist upon, I think I’ll try increasing the spice measurements by 50% – perhaps Ted and I can find a happy medium.

Indian Madras Curry

In the course of exploring new cookery there are always a fair share of pitfalls as well as pleasant surprises. In my endeavors to expand my repertoire of Indian curry recipes, on of those surprises was my discovery of a tomato-based madras curry recipe. Some curry recipes I just can’t seem to make taste right no matter what I do. This recipe what a flavor revelation the first time I tried it!

Indian Madras CurrySo, why was the Madras recipe so surprising to me? On the one hand, whenever I try a new recipe, the results, be they good or bad, end up being a surprise to some extent. What came as the greatest surprise, however, with the Madras Curry is that it had not creaming ingredients whatsoever.

Everyone has their particular preferences when it comes to varies segments of cuisine. When faced with the choice of curries, especially on a restaurant menu, I scan the descriptions for any mention of creaminess. Yogurt, cream, coconut milk… all acceptable and welcome forms of creamy curry. The madras recipe has none of these, and yet quickly jumped to to the upper echelon of my curry repertoire.

I typically make this madras curry with beef, but lamb, chicken, chickpeas, tofu or vegetables would all be acceptable substitutes. When made with meat, I suggest starting this dish early in the day and simmering for many hours on low heat (or use a slow cooker, if you have one) so that the meat is thoroughly stewed and falls apart easily. Discounting stewing time, this recipe is very fast an easy, as it does not require any

INDIAN MADRAS CURRY

1 lb. beef cubes, or chicken, tofu, chick peas, vegetables, etc.
2 onions, chopped
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon oil or butter
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 (16 oz) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Saute the onions, ginger, garlic and spices in the oil or butter for five minutes. Add meat, tofu or vegetables and cook for another minute or two. Add tomatoes and tomato paste. Simmer a few hours, if using meat, or until desired doneness. For tofu or vegetables, heat through. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve.

Smorgasbord of Randomness, Part 2

When last we met, the menu was well-appropriated with low-carb, but often meat-ridden selections. The other major dietary contingent in my dinner party was vegetarian, and it was for these guests that I originally planned the meal around Indian curries.

SaagI cooked two of my very favorite curries; both are also relatively easy to make. The first is a recipe I have developed over the course of a few years with much trial and error. It is a recipe for saag (Indian creamed spinach), and it makes no claims to authenticity, but it’s the closest I’ve come to capturing the flavor and texture of saags I’ve had in restaurants. The second is a quick korma recipe I found online many years ago. It was originally formulated to use as a sauce over baked chicken. I use it for any good curry medium, be it chicken, chickpeas, vegetables, paneer, etc. On this occasion, I wanted to make a double dose for the larger group (having leftovers never hurts!), and since I had one can of chickpeas and one brick of paneer already in my kitchen stores, I decided to use both.

SARAH’S SAAG

1 lb. spinach
8 oz. other green vegetable (e.g. broccoli, mustard greens, collards, cabbage, peas, etc.)
1-2 tablespoons oil or butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic (3 teaspoons minced)
2 inches fresh ginger root, minced; or 1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon dried methi leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup cream, coconut milk or plain beaten yogurt
1/2 cup (or more to taste) fresh cilantro leaves, or a couple tablespoons of cilantro chutney
8 oz package of cream cheese

Combine all but the last ingredient in a food processor until well pureed; or, in the alternative, simmer all ingredients and then puree with an immersion blender. Cook until spinach is darker in color. Add cream cheese and cook until melted, whisking often. Consistency should be thick and not runny.

When I made it this last weekend, it turned out to be a little runnier than I usually like; I credit that to the fact that I used coconut milk instead of cream (no particular reason, just because I had a lot of coconut milk around). If going that route, you might want to leave extra cooking time to let the liquid steam off. I also used dried cilantro instead of fresh, since I didn’t have any on hand at Saundra’s house. I missed the fresh cilantro flavor, and so when I reheated some of the leftovers this week, I tried mixing in some store-bought cilantro (coriander) chutney, and it effectively brought in some of that flavor I know and love.

CHANA PANEER KORMA

1 (8oz) brick of paneer, cubed
1 can chickpeas
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup cream or plain beaten yogurt
2 cloves garlic (1 teaspoon minced)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons blanched almonds or other shelled nuts
1 tablespoon mango chutney

Sauté the onion in the melted butter. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients (except chickpeas and paneer) in a food processor until smooth; or in the alternative add these ingredients to the pan, simmer a minute, and then puree with an immersion blender. Add the chickpeas and paneer and reduce heat. Heat until cooked through and thickened. If sauce gets too thick, add more cream (or milk) or yogurt, or even water if you feel like you’ve added enough cream already.

Garam MasalaThis dish turned out well enough last weekend, as the recipe is fairly predictable. The only difference was that I used a new Garam Masala, and as I’ve discovered, not all garam masalas are created equal. As a traditional spice mix, garam masala has some inherent traditional properties to distinguish it from other spice mixes, such as Chaat Masala, Madras Curry Powder or Bafat Masala, but otherwise, recipes differ. This blend had a bit too much… something. Clove, perhaps? Anise? Nothing terrible, but just not exactly what I expected. For the sake of regularity, here is my own garam masala recipe, based on garam masalas I have enjoyed in the past:

GARAM MASALA

3 tablespoons powdered coriander seed
2 tablespoons powdered cumin
1 tablespoon powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves

Combine all ingredients. Store in a spice jar and use in recipes where garam masala is called for.

The Great India Buffet Tour: Taste, Tamarind & Taj

There is just something about an Indian restaurant buffet that I find hard to beat. Being mildly obsessed with Indian cuisine, my drive to frequent Indian restaurants is far from surprising, but my particular affinity for the buffet bears special explanation as it is the seed of Sabrina’s and my idea for a progressive tour.

The buffet, of whatever ethnicity of food, is a controversial institution. Health nuts hate them, red-blooded American appetites love them… Perhaps the most compelling cuisine-conscious argument against the restaurant buffet is that the quality of food over the buffet represents a noticeable downgrade in quality from off-menu items.

Be that as it may, from my perspective, a cost-benefit assessment of the India Buffet makes it the most alluring choice for South Asian dining. My own growing skills in curry cookery will satisfy my cravings on the average day and make off-menu dining at your average Indian restaurant a questionable upgrade. Do most Indian restaurants cook with superior skill and authenticity to me? Probably. But will ordering two curries and a basket of naan make me happier than cooking two curries and warming up some store-bought naan? Probably not.

The beauty inherent in the India Buffet is that I cannot attempt to recreate it at home (without ludicrous and laborious effort), and I cannot order the full splendor of an Indian meal off the menu without spending a fortune for more food than I could eat in two weeks. The essential appeal of the India Buffet is bountiful variety. Not only do you get a choice of a few (or more) curries, but you get the condiments, the chutneys, the raitas, the breads, the dry vegetables, the desserts, the unexpected delights…

And so, when I told Sabrina two months ago that I had a craving for India Buffet, and we found ourselves stymied by the choices of restaurant, the idea for our India Buffet Tour was born. We have already made three stops on our tour of Indian restaurant buffets in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Let me catch you up on the results so far.

Taste of India, Bloomfield, 4320 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Sabrina, being a Lawrenceville dweller and Indian food aficionado, is such a fixture at Taste of India in Bloomfield that she is, more often than not, the reigning mayor on foursquare, but I had only ever tried food from the CMU cafeteria installation. Still, it was close to both of us, it had a buffet, and so it won out as our first stop on the tour.

The restaurant itself was rather empty with only two other tables occupied when we arrived. The buffet itself was much as expected with all the trimmings, the standard chutneys, rice, naan, kheer, a variety of curries, dry vegetable, green salad and tandoori chicken (the last two of which I always skip over). I was disappointed that day in the lack of color among the curries, specifically the lack of a spinach curry. I expect and enjoy having a variety of color in curries. Some red (makhani, tikka masala, madras, etc), some yellow, white or orange (kormas, dals, chana masala, etc), some green (saag/palak). I understand that buffet offerings change, but that day they were all basically red curries. There was a chicken tikka masala, a basic chicken curry, and a malai kofta. As it turned out the malai kofta was quite good, and something I would not have ventured to try off menu, but I was disappointed in the lack of color variety and specifically in the lack of spinach dishes.

On the upside, there was an unexpected delight in the form of lentil balls. Neither Sabrina nor I had tried this dish before and we were both pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, this is a chilled dish made from white lentils served in a yogurt sauce with garnishes of cilantro and tamarind. They were especially tasty and became an instant favorite.

All in all, the Taste of India offered good quality food and a good variety.

Tamarind, Flavor of India, Oakland, 257 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

The buffet at Tamarind came highly recommended by Sabrina, and so for our second stop about a month later I was eager to try out her recommendation. That recommendation came with a warning, however, that the buffet would be smaller. Indeed it was smaller than the Taste of India buffet, but not by as much as I had imagined when she first described it.

Smaller, perhaps, but I knew on first glance that the dishes were certainly more unique. Their coconut chutney was a first for me and a welcome change from the usual coriander, tamarind and random pickle. There was naan, of course, but also a savory pastry that resembled small donuts. The curry selection was much more up to my colorful expectations, and I was especially impressed by the presence of a lamb saag. Since I am generally unenthusiastic about chicken, a lamb dish on a buffet was quite exciting… and spinach, nonetheless!

The difference in quality was apparent from the first bite. Whether it was the spice blends or the freshness of the ingredients, I could not say for certain, but the food at the Tamarind lunch buffet was definitely a cut above. The flavors were more intriguing and complex than at Taste. The lamb saag was particularly good, as was an eggplant and cauliflower dish (Sabrina was less impressed than I was with the latter), but nothing on this buffet was a disappointment.

Tamarind took a clear and early lead.

Taj Mahal, Ross Township, 7795 McKnight Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237

Having a little more time to spare over the holidays, we decided to make our more-or-less monthly buffet trip a bit early. After crunching schedules and evaluating our remaining options, we decided on the Taj Mahal restaurant on McKnight Road, which has a lunch buffet and a dinner buffet, such that it seems whenever they are open there is undoubtedly a buffet.

We attended the dinner buffet on a weekday evening. The building is tarp-draped and under renovation, and no wonder, because even though the seating was only about half capacity, it still felt cramped inside.

Perhaps it was the ambiance, but perhaps it was the enormity of the buffet. The advantage of the Taj Mahal buffet was undeniable even on first sight. It was at least twice as large as the Taste of India buffet with offerings I had not seen anywhere else. There were all the requisite vegetable curries, chana masala, vegetable korma, as well as a few chicken curries and even a goat curry. More impressive there was an entire vegetarian wing with paneer tikka masala and vegetable biryani, along with a peculiar Chinese-style tofu dish. Chutneys were numerous, as were appetizers including fritters and papaddams, the peppery crackers served as a standard warm-up at many sit-down, off-menu restaurants. The dessert selection was also large, with a mango mousse, kheer, a peculiar puffy pancake and a too-sweet blood-orange candy.

The bounty of the Taj buffet was exciting, though ultimately the quality was standard. All the curries were enjoyable, but the quality was not up to par with Tamarind. The highlights for me were the paneer tikka masala, the piquant sauce of the goat curry (still undecided about the goat meat itself), and the papaddams which made a surprisingly tasty, spicy and not-too-filling starchy complement to use in alternation with the naan. Lentil balls were a welcome chance to revisit the flavors we had come to enjoy at Taste of India, but weren’t quite as good as those at Taste, lacking some of the extra fresh flavor of the garnishes we had enjoyed the first time.

In the end, we decided that Tamarind still won out on the basis of far superior taste quality to our other buffet stops, but Taj Mahal gets definite points for the vast and various offerings of its dinner buffet.

Cashew Cauliflower Makhani (or Butter Chicken with Cashews)

I made one of my favorite new curry recipes last night. It’s based on a simple recipe for butter chicken, but since I’m generally unimpressed with chicken (I like to call it non-vegetarian tofu in a derisive tone), I make it with cashews and cauliflower instead. It can, of course, be made with chicken, as well. After a couple of tweaks to the original recipe, I’ve finally got it where I want it. Enjoy!

SARAH’S MAKHANI

1/3 cup unsalted cashews
1 oz butter
1 lb. of chicken, cubed, or 1 lb. of cauliflower florets
1 bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground hot red pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 (6 oz) can tomato paste
1 (8 oz) can tomato sauce
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
extra water, as needed

Melt butter over medium-low heat. Add cashews and roast slowly until golden; lower heat if necessary to keep from burning. Add cauliflower, onion, garlic and peppers and sauté in the cashew butter mixture a few minutes. Add ginger, spices, tomato paste and tomato sauce to the pan, along with some water.

Simmer covered until chicken or cauliflower reaches desired doneness. If sauce gets too thick, add more water. Add the cream and heat through. Serve over rice or with bread.