Monday, May 17, 2010

Indian Cauliflower and Potatoes

My first exposure to Indian cuisine was when I was a junior in college. Near the university I attended, there is a very popular Indian restaurant run by some Indian immigrants. At the recommendation of my friend, I tried the Chicken Coconut Korma.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Over the course of my education, I visited that restaurant frequently. I share my passion for Indian food with my husband and we ate there while we dated at least once a month, often two or three times a month. Needless to say, I was disappointed I wouldn't be able to get my Indian fix when we moved to Los Angeles.

Now, I know what you're all thinking: there are dozens of Indian restaurants in LA! How could I worry?

Well, as it turns out, I ended up with something even better than a dozen Indian restaurants.

I ended up with my own Indian chef.

Okay, not really. But almost!

One of the very first people I met in LA was a librarian at my local library named Neerja. I began volunteering there and eventually was hired on as a page (in that library system, and many others, you have to work your way up through seniority if you don't have a MLIS). Neerja is an amazing person. She took me under her wing. She took care of me when I missed my own mom. I wish I could remember more of her immigration story; I do remember that she lived in India near the Pakistan border when she was a little girl and had personal experience with the trains that would go between the two countries and arrive with a train full of dead passengers. I believe she immigrated with her parents when she was young.

She is an awesome cook.

She suffers from acid reflux, so much of her cooking is not spicy like a lot of the Indian food I have eaten, and she never cooks with tomatoes. But you don't even miss it. She would bring in leftovers for lunch and always offer to share with me. I don't know if she intentionally brought enough so I could have some, or if she let me have some even though she wanted it all. That would be just like her, honestly.

My favorite thing she made was something so simple: cauliflower and potato. We would wrap it up in her naan bread and it was delicious. Cauliflower never tasted so good, but the cauliflower is an important flavor component. It's blended perfectly and the flavors complement each other. One day, I asked her for the recipe, and she told me how to make it. I never wrote it down because it wasn't really a recipe, more a list of instructions. Then I moved away. I miss that cauliflower.

Then, my friend Julie just planned an Indian feast with some neighbors, and we'll all be bringing a dish to share. I really wanted to take this cauliflower and emailed Neerja for the recipe again. She sent it, and again, it didn't have any measurements.

I was really nervous.

I decided to make it before Saturday, just in case. But as soon as it was done, the smell took me back to LA. I tasted it, and I closed my eyes, and I envisioned the old back room at the library with crepe paper streamers lining the ceiling from the last party and cupboards stuffed with bulletin board displays. I saw the old, musty yellow couch, the formica table, and vinyl-covered, mismatched chairs. It was a pathetic little break room, with an ancient mini refrigerator I could never figure out how to open, but the room was warm and welcoming. It was home.

I called Julie and had her try it and she voted for me to make it again on Saturday. There are some adjustments I'll have to make (I added too much potato, not enough turmeric...overcooked the onion) and the recipe below reflects those changes.

Neerja's Cauliflower and Potatoes
printable recipe

olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 small onion, chopped
1 head cauliflower, cut into small pieces
3-4 small russett potatoes, cut into small pieces (about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch pieces)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (more if you like it spicier)

Heat the olive oil (at least enough to cover the bottom of the pan) in a large skillet that has a lid over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and onion, and saute until the onion has started to soften and the cumin seeds are fragrant. Add in the rest of the ingredients and stir, adding more olive oil if necessary. Cover and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, until the cauliflower and potatoes are very soft. Neerja always ate this for lunch wrapped in a piece of naan bread. Keep in mind that the smaller the potato pieces are, the quicker it will cook. This will help prevent the cauliflower from over cooking and the onions from burning.

Note: If you have a large non-stick pan, use it. I did this once in a non-stick pan and once in a regular pan, and I had to boil water in the regular pan to clean it. It came right off after a good boil, but that takes time and SMELLS. Use non-stick if you can. Even if you can't, the food is totally worth it if you like Indian cuisine.

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