As a kid I was a picky eater. In fact I was beyond picky, I basically didn't eat. The food I was offered on a regular basis (unless eating Italian at Nonna's) was fairly ordinary and typical of the times. TV dinners, fish sticks or frozen pizza on Fridays. Meat always served triple well done, mac and cheese from a box. However these very American meals were always augmented by either a fresh salad or a steamed artichoke as a first course - I was the only kid on my block who was eating artichokes at that age - and sometimes featured an exotic cheese for dessert unless we were having Py-O-My..
As a teenager, color me curious. While my friends were hitting Mel's Diner and Zims, I was wandering the back alleys of Chinatown discovering Dim Sum at the Hang Ah Tea Room...
Another thing that pushed me in a Vedic direction was getting cancer 21 years ago. I'd been a vegetarian, healthy, never smoked etc. but still I got sick. Along with chemo and all the rest of Western medicine, I decided to move in a macrobiotic direction. I quickly became bored with my food. I mean how much burdock root can a person eat? And to deny an Italian eggplant?? Criminal, I thought. It was then that my doctor suggested I try an Ayurvedic style diet. In other words, how about Indian food? My sister in law who is an Indologist and had lived and worked in India, stepped in with books and info and I was on my way.
I recovered but I didn't stop cooking Indian food. It was as though something had clicked between my brain and my tongue and it didn't matter that I'd grown up on a weird tightrope between pickled Italian pigs feet and Kraft Mac and cheese It didn't matter I had grown up as fart from India as one could get in oh so many ways. I was home. I had found my cuisine!
One thing I learned when I first started eating Indian food, let alone cooking Indian food, was the vast amounts of oil or ghee that were sometimes involved. Not that grease doesn't set my taste buds blooming as rapidly as the next guy. It's just I always feel guilty eating too much of it. There is this nagging thought in the back of my head. "This is killing you dummy!" So that was one of the main reasons I started cooking Indian food myself was the desire for the flavor but without all the grease. And so I set about adapting the recipes I came across in an effort to make them lighter and healthier.
I experimented to find the right balance between how much oil is needed for flavor and how much is just...well too much. My friend and cooking mentor Paula Wolfert has taught me some great tricks about eliminating excess fat and grease from foods while still keeping the flavor, but there are times when just a culinary maneuver won't do. There are times when one has to "Just Say No!"
So what would you do with a recipe that has 1 quart of oil in it's first line? Whoa! Here's what I did as I adapted the classic Indian recipe Eggplant with Peanuts and Sesame Seeds.
Traditionally this dish is made with brinjals the tiny little oval Indian eggplants.
Eggplant With Tomato
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
Wash the eggplants and halve them. Then quarter them and quarter them again.
Spray a cookie sheet with non stick spray or brush it lightly with vegetable oil.
Place the eggplant pieces on the cookie sheet and brush them lightly with vegetable oil.
When they're tender and roasted, take them out and set them aside.
When the oil is hot add in:
2 thinly sliced red onions
Saute them until they start to turn golden.
Take the onions out and drain them on a paper towel and set them aside.
1 and 1/2 Tbs of sesame seeds
2 Tbs of peanuts
1 Tbs of grated dried coconut
3/4 tsp of white poppy seeds
Dry roast each of these until they start to turn color or get aromatic.
1 inch of thinly sliced fresh ginger
1 or 2 Tbs of water into a paste
Meanwhile back at the kadhai or skillet, heat the oil again. When it's hot add in:
1/2 tsp of brown mustard seeds
1/4 tsp of cumin seeds
1/4 tsp of fennel seeds
1/4 tsp of black onion seed (aka kalonji or nigella...not that Nigella)
A pinch of fenugreek seeds
Saute everything until it starts to brown then toss in:
The ginger, chili, shallot paste
10 curry leaves
Cook everything down about 5 or 10 minutes then add in:
The cooked drained red onions
1 and 1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp Kashmiri chili or 1/4 tsp cayenne mixed with 1/4 tsp of paprika
3/4 tsp of salt
Let everything cook down for about 4 minutes.
2 Tbs of tamarind or if you don't have tamarind substitute lemon or lime juice
1/2 tsp of jaggery or light brown sugar
Let that cook for about 2 or 3 minutes then add in:
The coconut spice paste
Cook everything until it's thoroughly blended then turn down the heat and add in:
1 cup of water
Bring it to a boil then add in the eggplants.
Cook for about 4 or 5 minutes and serve it up!