It always happens about now: arctic air and snow on the ground send me mentally globe-trotting to warmer climes for culinary inspiration.
I know, I know: comfort food is about carbohydrates, roasting, long, slow braises and root vegetables. But sometimes escapism is in order, and even the blandest basic ingredients can be monumentally transformed — just as civilization was — by a little spice trading.
Dried seeds, pods, roots, berries and herbs are the alchemical ingredients that have defined global cuisines since the dawn of history. Exotic flavors and ingredients (peppers, cumin, cardamom, ginger and turmeric) offer flavor and textural variety, aka the spice of life!
As primitive as we might like to think of early cultures, centuries of experimentation have resulted in some heady and sophisticated cooking. Nowhere is this more evident than the Indian sub-continent, where many strains of cooking are refined and cultivated but also humble, universal and available to the masses.
Even the language we’ve come to identify with the exotic celebrates a mundanity that is refreshing in the face of Instagram culture. Take tikka masala. As far as I can ascertain, the roots are “small bits or pieces” (tikka) and “spice or spicy” (masala), so let’s call it “spicy bits” for short.
Its most recognized form, chicken tikka masala, is a dish of spiced, yogurt-marinated and roasted chicken pieces stewed in a fragrant, tomato-inflected cream “curry” (itself a vague term for a sauce of spices). Not even the chicken is a constant. Lamb, seafood and vegetable permutations are spread over a large geographic area.
On offer here is an “authentic” — at least in my Hudson Valley kitchen — recipe for mushroom tikka masala. It is bits of mushrooms and bell pepper flash-fried in ghee, which is clarified butter available in the Foodtown dairy isle, and briefly stewed in a curry of onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander and turmeric. The most exotic and identifiably “Indian” ingredient — fenugreek leaves, or kasoori methi — is available at Saraswati Indian Market on Route 9 in Fishkill.
Joe shares another spicy winter recipe on the most recent episode of Beacon resident and chef Jennifer Clair’s podcast, Kitchen Radio. See homecookingny.com/podcast.
Mushroom Tikka Masala
4 tablespoons oil or ghee
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 large yellow onions, chopped fine
3 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste (see note, below)
14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes in sauce
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
4 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi); optional
2 pounds large white button and/or cremini mushrooms, wiped clean
2 large green bell peppers, ¼-inch dice
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons medium-hot
¾ cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
2 to 3 tablespoons ghee
½-to-1 teaspoon medium-hot
¼ to ½ cup heavy cream (or substitute coconut cream)
- In a large saucepan, heat oil or ghee to medium and add cumin seeds. Once they begin to sizzle, add chopped onion. Cook stirring often until onions brown slightly. Add ginger-garlic paste and stir for about 45 seconds to a minute. Sprinkle in the ground coriander, cumin and turmeric and chili powder. Add crushed tomatoes in puree. Bring to a low boil then reduce heat to maintain a low simmer while you prepare the mushrooms. Add hot water as needed to keep the sauce from thickening too much.
- Trim the mushroom stems a bit leaving the caps whole, if possible. If too large, cut in halves or quarters. Toss with the bell peppers and reserve in a large bowl. Whisk together the yogurt, peppers, turmeric and chili powder. Add the spiced yogurt to the mushrooms and peppers and work it all together gently with your hands.
- Heat oil or ghee to medium-high heat in a large skillet. When hot, add the mushrooms-pepper mix in one layer. Do this in batches so as to not crowd the pan. Cook the mushrooms until they start to brown. Don’t move them around too much or they won’t brown.
- When all of the mushroom-bell pepper mix is cooked, add it to the tomato sauce. Add salt to taste. Add fenugreek and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Stir in heavy (or coconut) cream and simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes. Serve over jasmine rice and garnish with chopped cilantro.
Note: Ginger-garlic paste is a commercially available Indian preparation. I found it at Saraswati in Fishkill. It is basically a puree of equal measures ginger and garlic, smoothed with a little oil. The commercial preparation of course has additives to prolong shelf life, resulting in a questionable product. Make it yourself and freeze any excess for other uses.