Even though I have a ridiculous amount of cookbooks, I never tire of exploring new ones. In pursuit of some new flavors to perk up my repertoire, I recently picked up Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide, a wonderful book in which Monica’s Indian heritage merges with her creative, contemporary approach to cooking and entertaining. I’ve been following Monica on Twitter for a while, but hadn’t used any of her cookbooks until now (I’ve been missing out!). The book has recipes for Indian food in the sense that Monica is Indian and she came up with the recipes, but instead of Indian restaurant staples such as Lamb Korma or Chicken Vindaloo, you’ll find recipes like Saffron Mussel Stew and Curried Egg Salad with Caramelized Onion.
In the introduction to Modern Spice, Monica discusses the question of “what is ‘authentic’ Indian food?”. This really hit home with me because I know I do sometimes get hung up on what the “correct” or “truly” authentic version of something may be, instead of just being concerned with whether it tastes good! I think it’s mostly because, especially when trying a new ethnic or regional dish, I want some sort of baseline from which I can measure whether or not variations are preferable to the “original”. But as Monica astutely points out, her mother’s version of “authentic lentils” is quite different from the “authentic lentils” of her mother-in-law! With that in mind, I am going to try to have a more open mind about recipe sources and culinary traditions. Monica’s approach to Indian food reminds me of Clotilde Dusoulier‘s approach to French food- taking a culinary foundation and riffing on it in new and exciting ways.
Thus newly inspired, last weekend I made an Indian feast: three recipes from Modern Spice, as well as two from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. I mainly chose the recipes based on what I had in the pantry and fridge (dried yellow split peas, a frozen bag of okra, a bunch of cilantro, a few beets, some yogurt) and then added a couple items (acorn squash, some trout) to round out the menu. From Modern Spice I made Beet Salad with Yogurt Dressing, Acorn Squash with 5 Spices, and Pan-Fried Trout with Mint-Cilantro Chutney. I added Madhur Jaffrey’s Sweet & Sour Okra and Masoor Daal for variety and to ensure I had plenty of leftovers to take in my lunch all week.
Of all the dishes, the acorn squash was my favorite, so that’s the recipe I’ll share. The trout was delicious too, but you probably don’t need a recipe- all it entails is pan-frying the trout and drizzling the chutney on top. The chutney recipe Monica gives (mint, cilantro, green chile, red onion, lemon juice) is a little astringent for my taste, probably because I’m used to a similar restaurant chutney that has coconut milk in it. However, in keeping with her liberal philosophy on following “rules”, she does say in the instructions that this chutney can be varied however you like, with the addition of yogurt or other ingredients.
In addition to some great recipes (any book with a cocktail chapter is copacetic as far as I’m concerned), Monica is a talented writer. Regardless of how many recipes you try, the interludes between chapters, where she shares personal stories and experiences, make the book worth reading cover-to-cover. If you’re seeking uncomplicated ways to jazz up your cooking and a good read to boot, look no further than Modern Spice for inspiration.
3 ½ cups acorn squash, peeled and diced in ¼-inch dice (see notes)
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil or ghee (see notes)
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp paanch phoron
pinch of asafetida (see notes)
2 large or 4-6 small shallots, diced
1 green serrano chile, minced
1 dried whole red bird’s eye chile
¼ tsp salt to start
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ cup water
warm honey (optional)
Notes: Monica indicates that a “medium” squash will give the necessary 3 ½ cups. Looks are deceiving- I used a squash that looked small to me and it yielded 4 ½ cups! Try to select a squash whose grooves are not too deep for easier peeling. For the spices, I found paanch phoron at World Market; I’m not sure where else you could find it unless you have access to Indian markets (except, of course, online). I have not yet been able to locate any asafetida. It is described as having an oniony/ garlicky aroma, so perhaps a clove of garlic smashed, fried in the oil and then removed could be substituted. Last but not least, Monica calls for vegetable oil, but I chose to substitute ghee for a slightly richer flavor- I don’t think she would mind.
Directions: Peel and dice your squash, discarding the “guts”. The skin of an acorn squash is not thick and can be removed with a vegetable peeler.
Warm the oil or ghee in a large lidded skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds, paanch phoron, asafetida, and shallots. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the shallots begin to color.
Add the green chile, red chile (I crumbled mine for extra heat), and squash, mixing well. Add the salt and turmeric and stir. Raise the heat to medium high and cook for about 5 minutes, until the squash begins to brown. (My squash never did brown- maybe I needed more heat?)
Add water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the squash is totally soft and the water has almost dried up, about 20 minutes (mine was soft in less time; you may want to check it after 10-15 min so as not to overcook).
Serve hot, drizzled with warm honey if desired. I kind of forgot about the honey, but I want to try it next time, as I love sweet and spicy flavors together. Monica recommends about 2 teaspoons for the entire dish, so if you’re adding the honey per portion, do it sparingly.