Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cooking the Books: Green Beans with Ginger

In my personal challenge to "cook the books" and work my way through cookbooks I own, I've been a bit lax in moving on. Some is because I've been busy, but some is because I "discovered" a cookbook that is so good I keep choosing "just one more" recipe before moving on to another book.

It's the 1973 classic, Introduction to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, which I see that Knopf republished in 2011. These days anyone interested in Indian cooking knows that Jaffrey has written many cookbooks. Back in the day, though, she wrote the book almost in self defense as she told the story in the introduction. An actress in New York, she would have people over to dinner or throw parties and invariably was asked for the recipes for the delicious fare. Finally, she decided it was easier to write a cookbook than keep jotting down recipes on scraps of paper, some of which got passed on so many times that she wound up attending a party where every dish had been prepared from her recipes. The hostess said that the recipes "seem to be floating around."

The result was a gift to anyone who ever wanted to cook "real" Indian food at home. One of the things that I appreciate most is that it was written in the 1970s when no one expected you to always have access to whole or exotic spices, to grind them by hand, and so forth, which can be quite daunting these days when reading cookbooks that don't allow anything but the most authentic methods. These never sacrifice flavor but are realistic in what the average cook may have on hand (or be willing to put time into). You may also notice the age of the book when you see ingredients like "Chinese parsley." No one at the time (at least in Kansas, I can tell you) had ever heard of cilantro.

 I have used it once or twice before and can't say why I never pursued it further. My recent addiction began before Easter, when we had a couple over to watch Monsoon Wedding and cooked Indian food to make it a theme evening. Even our Easter dinner featured grilled lamb and green beans from this book.

It is those green beans that I share with you now. They were a bit hit and I myself just couldn't get over how different they were from any green bean I'd ever tasted. And how delicious ...

Note: I didn't use cilantro because we had a guest who doesn't like it. As someone who used to dislike cilantro's flavor, I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone (for me, it tasted very soapy). I'm quite glad that my taste changed and I now love cilantro.

Green Beans with Ginger

Serves 4-6

1-1/2 pounds fresh green beans
A piece of ginger, about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 fresh hot green chili (optional), washed and sliced very fine
3 tablespoons chopped Chinese parsley (fresh coriander greens or cilantro)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1-1/4 teaspoons garam masala (I used garam masala from Penzeys, but that may be very different from Jaffrey's intention ... I give her recipe below)
2 teaspoons lemon juice (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Wash the beans. Trim the ends. Slice them into fine rounds about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. (This takes a while, so it is best to sit down somewhere with a chopping board and sharp knife and do about 8 beans at a time.) When all the beans are chopped, set aside in a bowl.

Put the ginger in the blender with 3 tablespoons of water and blend at high speed until it is a smooth paste. (I grate the ginger by hand, but do add the 3 tablespoons of water when continuing with the recipe below.)

Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. While it is heating, pour in paste from the blender and add turmeric. Fry, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes, then add the sliced green chilies and the parsley (cilantro), and after another minute, put in the green beans and continue cooking and stirring for about a minute. Add the cumin, coriander, 1 teaspoon of the garam masala, lemon juice, salt, and 3 tablespoons of wate. Cover skillet, turn flame very low, and let beans cook slowly for about 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.

To serve: these beans can easily be cooked in advance and reheated. Serve them in a warm dish, with 1/4 teaspoon garam masala sprinkled on top.

Garam Masala

To make about a cupful you will need:

25 cardamom pods (use seeds only)
1/2 cup whole black peppercorns
1/3 cup whole cumin seeds
1/4 cup whole coriander seeds
3 sticks of cinnamon, each about 3 inches long
4-6 whole cloves

Combine all ingredients and grind very fine, using an electric blender or a coffee grinder. (If you want to make your garam masala less hot, decrease the amount of black peppercorns and increase the cumin proportionately.) Store in a tightly covered container, away from sunlight and dampness. If carefully stored, this garam masala can be kept for a couple of months.