I think I may watch every food competition show on television. Top Chef, Master Chef, Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, Worst Cooks in America, Hell's Kitchen, Ace of Cakes...and my favorite, Next Food Network Star. I watch in morbid fascination, knowing that I can probably cook as well as the amateur home cooks who compete, but also knowing that I would crack under the time pressures of these competitions. I hate being rushed and never leave things for the last minute. I am quite sure working against a clock in an unfamiliar kitchen would not be a shining moment for me. Which is why I love watching these shows. Of course I am impressed watching the professionally trained chefs at work, but when I see someone without any formal culinary training whipping up a dish using only ingredients in a "Mystery Box" in 45 minutes (or some other crazy challenge of the week), I am impressed! Sure, I could do that too, but I would need a day or two to think about it, not 30 minutes. By then, Gordon Ramsey would have asked me for my apron back, and I would be conducting my exit interview.
This summer I watched Next Food Network Star and immediately picked out Aarti Seqeuria as my favorite to win (that's her up top). First of all, she is a food blogger. I always root for the food blogger! Second, her specialty is Indian cooking. Indian cooking is almost absent from instructional cooking television (with the exception of a BBC import on the Cooking Channel that is almost as boring as watching ice melt), and it is one of the most intimidating ethnic cuisines to prepare. Many people I know won't even try eating in an Indian restaurant because they "don't like curry". Indian food is so much more than curry! There are many unusual ingredients in Indian cooking. Ingredients like garam masala, sumac, turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom pods. That's enough to make anyone give up....but you shouldn't. Once you learn a few of the basics of Indian cooking, you will see it is not much different than many of the other cuisines of Southeast Asia.
If you live in or near a big city, you can pick up most of these ingredients at your local Whole Foods. I'll also bet that many of you have Asian markets near your house that you never knew were there. It takes a little investigative work to find them, but they are there. Phil and I found this huge Asian "mega-mart" about 20 minutes from our house. You would never see it from the road and the only marking from the street to know it is there is a small blue sign that says "Super H Market". You have it be looking for it. Once you are there, you will find a food court with several Asian booths that sell everything from authentic hand-pulled noodles (a huge bowl for like six bucks) to tandoori lamb on a stick (two dollars a stick with free rice). I have been known to sneak in these less than swanky food courts to grab myself a quick, cheap and healthy lunch. I am usually the only non-Asian in the place and the menus rarely are in English (although oddly they are sometimes in Chinese and Spanish). Some of the more helpful owners have a photo book for me to look through and I order by pointing at the dish I want, which actually comes out looking like the picture! I always get asked the same question in English, "Do you want it spicy?" I used to answer, "Medium spice," and then I would get a bowl of noodles so hot that my face would be red and flushed the rest of the day and my taste buds were just about burned off. Then I began to say, "A little bit spicy" and I would regret that answer as well. I now say, "No spice.", and then I sort of mutter about bringing the leftovers home to some little kids who can't eat spicy foods, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then he writes the order in Chinese to send back to the cook. I just know the order pad says, "Boring suburban housewife trying to be cool and wants to eat authentic Korean/Malaysian/Chinese food, but can't handle the heat. Give her the Americnized meal!" Or maybe they are happy to have the business and I am just being paranoid. Either way, I get an enormous bowl of flavorful broth loaded with noodles, veggies, tofu and a protein of my choice. I eat some for lunch and bring the rest home for my dinner (and for the rest of the family to taste). All for $6!!!
There is also a houseware store within the market that sells gorgeous Asian dinnerware and serving pieces for a dollar or two per piece!
Then there is the part of the market that sells fresh produce, meats, dairy, and seafood. There is a bakery and thousands of specialty Asian and Hispanic products. Many of the labels were in Chinese, so I just guess what everything is. It is so much fun. I could spend all afternoon browsing through the aisles. Anyway, they had every spice and ingredient you could imagine there, and it was very inexpensive. I think a 2 oz. bag of garam masala (a Indian spice mixture) was two dollars. That is enough to last me two years and it will be stale before I can even finish it.
There are also great internet sources to buy non perishables. Amazon has almost everything you need. I also like Penzey's Spices, The Spice House, and Indian Foods Co. Once you have these basic Indian staple ingredients, you will find other uses for them. For example, take the mango chutney in this recipe (or any jarred chutney for that matter). I always have a sweet chutney (like the one called for here) in my fridge and a sweet-spicy one in my fridge (like Major Greys Chutney). You can spoon it over brie and serve it on crostini; mix 1 T. into a vinaigrette to make a salad dressing; add 1/4 c. into plain rice to make a pilaf; make a mixture of half mayonnaise and half chutney to make a sandwich spread or a burger topping; substitute it for jelly in almost anything (try a sweet chutney and almond butter sandwich); use as a topping for sweet potatoes; top a bagel crisp with cream cheese and chutney; spread it plain on a turkey sandwich; mix equal amounts of goat cheese and chutney and bake in a puff pastry; serve it along side roasted chicken or grilled lamb; I have even heard of people spooning it over vanilla ice cream. I haven't even gotten to the part where I tell you about how easy it is to cook your own chutneys (it is very simple!). I'll save that for the fall.
I hope you will give this "Pizza" a try. Any sweet chutney will do in the recipe (mango and peach would be my two top choices). Queso Blanco is available is almost every supermarket and the naan can be found at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. If you can't find naan, try this recipe using pizza dough, or substitute pita bread instead. I promise, you are going to love this recipe.
Indian "Pizza" (adapted from Aarti Sequeria)
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons sweet mango chutney (recommended: Patak's Sweet Mango Chutney)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup crumbled paneer cheese or queso blanco
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 large green onion, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
A glug extra-virgin olive oil
4 naan bread, frozen or fresh
4 slices prosciutto, torn
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
In a small saucepan, combine the tomato paste, mango chutney, minced garlic, and water over medium heat, until well combined. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes and then remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the mozzarella, paneer or queso blanco, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, ground cumin and extra-virgin olive oil. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Add more red pepper flakes if you like it spicy!
Arrange the naans on a cookie sheet. Divide the tomato-mango chutney sauce evenly among the naans, spreading to coat the top. Evenly divide the cheese mixture among the naans. Throw in the oven for 8 to 13 minutes, or until crisped around the edges.*
Meanwhile, tear the prosciutto into small pieces. When the pizzas are ready, top them with the fresh prosciutto. Cut each naan in half or into quarters, and serve!
*I like to bake pizzas directly on a preheated baking stone in a hot oven for an extra crispy crust.