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Good intro to Indian cuisine, recipes are so-so
on January 20, 2011
I'm an avid slow cooker, and I have cooked my own Indian food for a long time, even making paneer from milk. I've made many restaurant basics on the stove, both from my own recipes and from recipes in books. I've even improvised Indian food in my slow cooker, especially moong dal with spinach (adapted from Suvir Saran's Indian Home Cooking), Goan fish (which I loved at a restaurant and reverse engineered; coconut milk + homemade curry paste + frozen salmon fillets, and after the fish was cooked I reduced the sauce on the stove), and a coconut dal recipe (adapted from Mark Bittman's Best Recipes in the World) that entranced even my most carnivorous friends.
I've used this book to cook about 8 recipes and here's what I've found. Implicitly I am comparing it with my favorite slow cooker books, the "Not your mother's slow cooker" and "Not your mother's slow cooker for two", which I like because they have a balanced set of recipes and have clearly tried making them different ways: they specify when things need to be browned before adding to slow cooker, and say whether high or low is better for a given recipe.
The 8 recipes I made are mustard greens and spinach, chana dal, green lentil and rice, dry dal, cauliflower, pigeon peas with garlic and lemon, and my boyfriend made the chicken vindaloo and chicken masala, and then made lamb vindaloo based on the chicken recipe.
1. Prioritizes spices: she says if you're going to buy 7 spices, which are the 8 you should buy. That wasn't a typo: she lists 7 of the crucial spices, and then adds an 8th, and then pictures of her crucial 7 spices include spice #8 while omitting another.
2. Some of the food is really good. I like the flavors of 5 of the 8 recipes we've made (disappointing ones discussed below). Other food others have liked, even thought I haven't, like the cauliflower.
3. I like how conversational the book is, and that she mentions how the recipes fit into her life.
4. I love that she has vegetable recipes --- most slow cooker cookbooks don't cook veggies outside of root vegetables.
5. I also like that my boyfriend got really excited to see the book --- he wanted to borrow it the day it came and was really excited to make the vindaloo.
6. As with any Indian cookbook, most recipes are suitable for people with the most common food restrictions: few or no recipes use peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, shellfish, wheat, soy, corn, and most are vegetarian. Many are dairy-free and vegan. They use little sugar and starch, so are fairly low glycemic index.
1. Avoids some obvious short-cuts: Someone who is using their slow cooker will want other short cuts that don't compromise flavor, such as pre-ground spices, frozen spinach, and canned tomatoes. Is someone who is using a slow cooker also going to grind their own coriander or dip a single tomato in boiling water to peel off the skin before cutting it? I only grind my own spices when I'm making a huge batch of curry paste that will last me a year.
2. Logistics are off. She tells you to buy 8 spices, but so far I haven't found a single recipe that uses 2 of the spices with no other special ingredients. 1 lb of mustard greens filled my entire 6 qt crockpot leaving little room for the 1 lb of spinach and spices, onion, garlic, ginger that I was supposed to add afterwards. Thankfully I was using frozen spinach, but 1 lb of fresh spinach would not have fit.
3. She buys into the fat-free fallacy that it's better to make enormous quantities of fat-free food than moderate quantities of normal-fat food, so most of the dal/bean recipes are fat-free. On a flavor basis, that's a huge negative: flavor is less full, texture is more gummy, and the hot spices are harsher than if made traditionally in oil. (The only times I've ever seen people get chemical burns in their mouth from hot peppers were when they were in fat-free dishes, so I think there's a real change in the quality of peppers when cooked in oil versus not.) On a health basis, it's also a huge negative. Fat-free food has a higher glycemic index than traditional food, so many people overeat when they eat fat-free food, and certainly they do not save calories.
4. The recipes make enormous quantities. The keema recipe calls for 4 pounds of ground meat (vs. ones I found online use 1 lb at a time). Dal recipes use 3-4 cups of lentils. Why contribute to American epidemic of huge portions? She gives directions for halving the recipes, but it's distracting to do that for each of the dozen ingredients in a recipe.
5. It's mostly legumes, with only 7 meat recipes, ~12 vegetable recipes, and no fish. Of the 7 meat recipes, she says a few aren't traditional, and three include dairy in a central role (e.g., butter chicken) so a given person might not even be able to use all 7 recipes without tinkering if they have food restrictions. (A little known fact: people with food allergies often rely extensively on Asian cookbooks because they avoid most common allergens. Normal people buy Asian cookbooks because they want to try cooking something new. People with food allergies buy Asian cookbooks because they can't eat half the recipes in western cookbooks.)
6. She gives a single time for how long a dish takes to cook, but she doesn't explain how your choice of crockpot size affects that time. She gives 2 choices of crockpots (4 and 5 qt) for making the cauliflower, but gives only one cooking time (3 hours). I used a 4 qt crockpot and it was still crunchy after 3 hours; presumably the 3 hours was for a 5 qt crockpot. As I learned from "Not your mother's slow cooker", cooking time varies with how full a crockpot is, with fuller crockpots taking longer to cook. Similar experience with the dry dal.
7. The first two recipes that I made were disappointing. Besides taking different amounts of time to cook than expected, the Aloo gobi (cauliflower with potatoes) was gritty with spices. You actually feel the vast quantity of spices as you eat it because there are tablespoons and tablespoons full of different spices. It's not a smooth feeling that you have from aloo gobi that you make on the stove. My guess is that the spices don't get a chance to dissolve into the oil. I served the aloo gobi to guests, and some of them loved it, and others weren't so excited, so it's personal taste. My boyfriend made lamb vindaloo, and there was the same thick grittiness from undissolved spices. My suggestion for the future will be to make spice pastes ahead of putting them in the slow cooker. The dry dal I made with urad dal, and it tasted raw after even twice as long as it was supposed to cook, and I didn't like the taste. And so I added water and cooked it overnight, and it still did not taste good. So I ended up with cups and cups of this dal that is barely palatable --- I ate a couple of servings, but threw 3/4 of it out, which I virtually never do. Maybe I just don't like urad dal, though, or maybe mine was old.
Btw, one reviewer mentioned how expensive it was to buy the ingredients. If you can find an Indian grocery, they shouldn't be. I went to my local Indian grocery (Patel Brothers, which is a national chain), and bought the full set of suggested spices for my boyfriend, some extra spices for myself, 4 lbs black chickpeas, and some other groceries, and my total was 25 dollars. And this is 7 and 14 oz bags of spices, not the small bottles from supermarkets.
I'm glad that I have this book, but since I already have to tinker with the recipes such as by adding fat and halving the recipes, I think that I would have been better off with a good Indian cookbook and using the slow cooker whenever there's a long simmer time, as I've done in the past.