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Wednesday, 22 January 2014 14:09

Staying on that spice trail at home

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Back in the day (circa: 1980-1999), if someone’s mothers’ spice cupboard contained more than a few jars, they were considered exotic.

We all had cinnamon for cookies. Nutmeg for fancy cookies. Bay leaves (although an herb, not a spice) for soup and stews. And whole cloves to prick into the skins of ham roasts garnished with tinned pineapple slices and maraschino cherries.
In our house, there was also star anise, a primary seasoning in any Mennonite’s recipe for chicken soup. But we, certainly, were not considered exotic.
As Dutch Mennonites living in the Mennonite Belt, we’d inherited a cuisine that didn’t exactly fit the post-modernist crock pot movement. But, then again, one family’s homemade noodles swaddled in cream gravy was just another family’s fancy Kraft Dinner.
So, when an East Indian family moved into a house down the street, it was my first encounter with someone whose lunch box didn’t smell like my own.
I’m not at all proud to remember how my sister and I theatrically pinched our noses as we walked past this house, letting the kids who lived there know that the aromas from their mother’s strangely-wondrous cooking wasn’t remotely normal.
And although our own mother marched us down the block to apologize and promise to never conduct ourselves so shamefully again, it wasn’t until years later, when I suddenly found myself the white cracker of Chefhusband’s made-in-Bombay (and elsewhere) clan, that I was fairly certain I’d received my childhood comeuppance.
But I digress.
Back in the day, the most exotic item in my mother’s, and most of my friends’ mothers’ spice racks, was paprika for sprinkling on devilled eggs. Although I like to hope we’ve all learned a little about how to season since then.
However, when Chefhusband decided the theme of an upcoming dinner party would be upscale East Indian, it’s fair to say we could’ve used the help of Christopher Columbus to navigate our convoluted search for spices.
A dozen stores and several days later, even having started with what had seemed like a well-stocked spice collection, we’d added black cardamom seeds, mace, black mustard seeds, turmeric and fenugreek. In total, we had 10 new spices, having never found either kalonji or ajwain, no matter where we looked. In fact, we never did figure out what they were.
And so we did what we’re supposed to do, and made do. We put our spice grinder (spare coffee grinder) through a workout. We learned that pureed onion is one of the secrets to smooth curries. Then there was braised lamb with tomato-fennel curry, duck breast with lemongrass and kaffir lime coconut curry, and paneer with sautéed spinach and arugula.
Our house smelled of marvellous spices for days. Which, in the world I love to live in now, is the same thing as living happily ever after.

Paneer with Sautéed Spinach and Arugula
5 oz container baby spinach and arugula mix
1/2 cup canola oil
1 Tbs cumin seeds
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp pepper flakes
2-3 tsp flaked kosher salt
3 cups pureed tomato (from canned tomatoes that have been drained)
2 cups water
400 ml can coconut milk, stirred
1 recipe paneer (follows)

 Heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add cumin seeds and allow to sizzle for 30-45 seconds. Stir in mustard seeds, turmeric, pepper flakes and salt. Stir in pureed tomato then reduce heat to low. Cover and cook for  5 minutes, then remove lid and stir. Cook until oil rises to the surface of the curry and glistens.
Add water and increase heat to medium and bring to a boil. Reduce to low heat and cook another 5-8 minutes. Add coconut milk and increase heat to medium and bring to a boil. Stir in spinach and arugula and cook 2 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust salt to taste. Serve over sliced paneer, with cooked basmati rice.

8 cups whole milk
3/4 tsp granulated sugar
3 Tbs white vinegar

Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and set in your kitchen sink.
In a large pot, combine milk and sugar and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.
Turn off heat. Stir in vinegar and allow the milk solids to separate for about 5 minutes. Ladle contents into the cheesecloth-lined colander and let drain for another 5 minutes.
Grasp the ends of the cheesecloth and twist the ball of cheese to squeeze out the excess liquid. Tie closed with a bit of string, then place the ball between two plates and place a medium pot filled with water over top. Set aside for an hour.
Open cheesecloth and turn paneer out onto a clean plate. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, then slice into eight pieces.

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