Every once in a while, we all need to add a little spice to our lives — and certainly the least scary way to start may be at the dinner table.
I have been thinking about cooking with spices since one of our more intriguing cooking sessions is coming up on June 2nd. This will be a hands-on experience with Chef Nick Bhalesar, more of a “cooking” experience and a bit different from our fine dining evenings. Guests will be making their own samosas and will have something to take home with them. Nick will demonstrate not only how to make the samosas but will also talk about the role of certain spices in Indian cookery. (I’m hoping, for instance, that he will explain the difference between curry powder and garam masala, those two spices so ubiquitous in Indian cuisine.) And he is also planning to provide a little primer on the health benefits of various spices.
Bhalesar is the owner and chef at India Village, a wonderful set of restaurants — one in Ancaster and one in Dundas — that feature their very own cooking classes. India Village is not far from where I live and is one of my favorite “go-to” places when I don’t feel like cooking and want something fresh, tasty and reasonable in price. The ambiance is warm and welcoming, with Jackie Bhalesar, Nick’s wife, greeting guests, and there is no feeling of discomfort there if you are dining solo. The menu features all of the Indian favorites from naans (try the garlic naan) to butter chicken to biryanis, along with vegetarian and gluten-free choices. The only down side is that Indian food never feels “heavy” or too filling, to me — and so I always end up eating way too much of it! I think that Indian cuisine is one of the world’s most varied, imaginative and nuanced and, if there were world enough and time, I would really like to learn a lot more about it.
It’s interesting how our teaching session actually has dove-tailed with a series of documentaries on TV Ontario called The Spice Trail. The three programmes featured Kate Humble who travels around the world to see where spices originate and how they are made. (She chooses pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla and saffron to investigate.) I enjoyed the shows — the places where Humble travelled were all exotic and beautiful and it was a great travelogue. But Humble is so giggly and effusive and over the top (“Wonderful!” “Fascinating!” “Amazing!”) that there were times when I wondered if, perhaps, she had been excessively dipping into the local wine before the filming. (Unlike Anthony Bourdain who becomes more cynical and curmudgeonly, as he munches and tipples his way through his CNN travel pieces.) I did learn lots: for instance, did you know that spices are made from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of plants or trees and that herbs, on the other hand, are the leafy parts of plants that do not have woody stems? And that vanilla originated in Mexico? Anyway, the main idea that I took away from these documentaries is how small the growth areas are for these spices and how incredibly labour intensive the production and distribution is. So I shall not complain about how expensive they are.
Humble also talks about the history of spices and how the quest for these rare and precious foodstuffs led to wars and competitions among nations. I always think of “the quest for spices” as occurring at that moment when my eye falls upon the small notation in the list of ingredients, “1/4 tsp of cardamom”, and I open one of my cupboards filled with rows of little bottles and start taking them out and putting them on the kitchen counter trying to find the (bleep-ing!) cardamom. I’m sorry to admit it, but, in fact, for many years, I was more likely to just buy a new bottle, than to search through three or four cupboards. (During one massive cupboard cleaning, I recall finding seven little jars of nutmeg.) Yes, I know that one can buy a spice rack but the spice rack is based on the faulty assumption that all of the spices come in similar sized and shaped bottles or tins. One could also put all of the spices in little bottles, clearly label them and arrange them in alphabetical order, like my friend Margaret. It’s all a matter of priorities.
I must tell you that I have reformed somewhat, however, and now I try to read recipes more carefully and buy my spices in tiny amounts in plastic baggies from the bulk bin. That way, I use them up when fresh and they don’t languish for months (years?) in the cupboard.
Anyway, in case you have lots and lots of nutmeg (Whatever do you use it for, other than egg nog, pumpkin pie or Swedish meatballs?) — here is a cookie recipe.
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tsp. soda
1 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup soft butter
4 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
2 cups seedless raisins
1 cup chopped nuts
additional seeded raisins
1) Sift together the first four ingredients and set aside.
2) Gradually blend sugar with butter.
3) Beat in eggs.
4) Add flour mixture alternately with milk.
5) Stir in nuts and raisins.
6) Drop from a teaspoon, 1 1/2 inches apart onto lightly greased cookie sheets. Top each cookie with a big seeded raisin.
7) Bake in a preheated over 375 degrees F., 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Store airtight. Makes about 5 dozen little cookies.
These are incomparably delicious, warm out of the oven, with something childish like a glass of cold milk or fresh lemonade.