Freshly Frozen

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My fridge is full of rotting vegetables. These are usually invaluable leftovers from my shopping trips; unique veggies that are essential to one recipe or the other, but not available at Jubilee Market next door. Or the next three hundred doors for that matter.

Hence lies a problem with cooking Indian in New York - how do you keep veggies at hand without to take a jaunt to suburban New Jersey? The answer, in the land of huge refrigerators is of course frozen; tucked away nicely in that frosty-looking ziplock bag, waiting paitiently for your attention (somtimes for months on end). A few things are readily available frozen such as spinach and parathas, but I've discovered a couple of other really useful ones.

The mostest value undoubtedly comes from frozen green chillies. These absolutely indispensable hot friends can be frozen for a good long while; a couple of weeks at least. They lose some of their shape and become slightly watery when thawed, but usually survive the ordeal without much of a fuss. Paneer is readily available frozen from local Indian stores. Another is karela - which can be sliced and frozen for 3-4 months or more. Then there's onion paste - raw and boiled - it can be frozen for about a month according to official sources, but much, much longer if you're willing to do a pepsi. I discovered frozen methi the other day at Spice Corner. And finally, grated coconut preserves frozen for a good long while. For greated convenience, it can be pasted in a blender directly from the freezer.

Some crucial stuff, however, just wont freeze. Cilantro is a complete disaster if frozen. (luckily its readily available in stores). Limes are another - can be frozen in theory, but turn mushy too readily (the ice expands and bursts the pods). The juice of the lime, however, can be frozen - someone on a chowhound forum recommends making lime juice ice cubes. I would think that applied to any soft fruits - tomatoes, lemons, limes, oranges.

Chef Coming Up

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An email from Gayot a few days ago warned of the five rising chefs in America. Amazingly, only one was from New York. Zakary Pelaccio's distinctly pizza-parlor name hid a penchant for peddling inexpensive Malaysian food in superhip Meatpacking District. This Saturday, suitably encouraged by my stomach, I headed into Fatty Crab to check the chef rising.

Its a tiny tiny place, barely able to contain the tables and waiters. The three of us were so space challenged that lunch was a constant juggling of plates and glasses and forks and knives. The food did, however, live up to its promise of being both interesting and affordable. We ate all kinds of the things of the menu, and were not disappointed by any (except possibly the tiny portions of the skate entree). The nasi lemak was spectacular, the lo-si-fun delectable and the crab more than passable. Portions are usually small, though. Of course, this isn't traditional Malaysian food; more on the lines of "inspired by".

Another gourmet chef trying her had at downmarket cuisine is Anita Lo at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Unlike her main showpiece at Annisa (which is gourmet dining in hidden corner of the village), Rickshaw brightly modern fast food place opposite the Home Depot. It serves dumplings in sixes and nines, steamed or fried, all at incredible speeds; (fumbling for change can sometimes make your dumplings go cold). I ran through about two thirds of the short menu, and found the dumplings quite competent, the steamed generally better than the fried and the chicken-thaibasil dumpling the best of the lot - not least because of the rather delectable coconut dipping sauce.

The Daily Grind

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One of my biggest challenges to cooking Indian food, surprisingly enough, has been to do with grinding spices. Wet or dry grinding is a staple with Indian spieces. This may not sound like much of a challenge but it's huge. To start with, the quantity problem; most appliances (such as coffee grinders) are suited for larger quantities (such as handful of coffee beans). That's enough ground spice to run a restaurant. You can't simply grind a large quantity and store it for later use - many spices will rapidly deteriorate into sawdust (and the ones that don't - duh - you can buy those pre-ground). The other problem is the blending of those strong spice smells; Coffee grinders are meant to grind the same thing over and over again, while an average Indian meal may require you to grind some ten different spices in one meal, and they should not all end up smelling of each other. To top it all off, coffee grinders cannot be washed. The best you can do is wipe them with a wet cloth, a feeble gesture that makes only a small dent in the wondorous odors of some of the stronger condiments. Individual spice mills are easily available options, but can quickly become very expensive. They can't accommodate more than one spice, so you're going to need a lot of them if that's your only option. I use them for really frequently ground spices, such as cardamom or roast cumin (they dont grind cinammon sticks very well). A much better option is decidedly low-tech - the humble but very versatile mortar and pestle. These things are easy to wash between grinds, and are outrageously good for small quantities. A good one should have bulk and be sufficiently rough inside for fine grinding. Not to forget entirely about the coffee grinder alternative, though. Many spices - cumin, poppyseed or mustard, for example - are tough to grind in a mortar but do wonderfully well in a coffee grinder. What to look for are blades that are really close to the bottom, so that there isn't much space below the blade for these small seeds to hide. Some of them have as much as 1/2 inch of space below the blade, and that's a lot for a spice. The one I've had the most success with is Krup's small, inexpensive model whose are blades nearly flush with the bottom. Wet grinding is a far bigger challenge. India sells that wondorous device called a wet grinder, but I never did find one in the United States. Coffee grinders will short out (dont try it). Blenders, unfortunately, won't do in many situations. They work well only if the contents are fluid enough to keep sliding to the bottom - like coconuts or onions. For spice pastes, however, that's far too much liquid. Just as troublesome are bigger wet things like mint leaves or green chillies, where no water should be added at all - I want a thick smooth paste, not a milkshake. Also, blend blenders with small quantities and all you get is a nice splatter pattern along the sides. I do use the coffee-grinder for ginger and garlic; they're wet but not so much as to cause trouble, and a nice smooth paste comes out. Some spices you can dry-grind and then mix in a bowl with a little with water to form a smooth paste. I use this for cumin, coriander, mustard, poppyseed or dry red chillies, but it doesn't work for every thing. Dont try it with nuts such as almonds or cashew; the results are patchy at best. So what's the answer? A bald wondercook friend of mine had the best one. He'd sautee the onions first (pretty much every Indian curry requires onions). Then, he'd put the onions along with whatever was to be pasted into the blender and blend the whole thing. The onions have enough volume and juice that everything comes out nice and paste. Sure, you're going to have to be smart about quantities (measurements in the recipe will usually be given for the paste, not the whole) but that will come with a few tries. And, of course, you can buy bottled pastes of much of the standard stuff - ginger, garlic, green chillies. They're distinctly inferior to fresh paste, but work in a pinch (just remember that they already have salt in them). Tamarind the bottled version is quite up to scratch, and almond (or cashew) butter is a good substitute for almond (or cashew) paste.

French Stars

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The Michelin Guide is the most famous of restaurant guides. Till recently, however, Michelin stars weren't available to American chefs; not having never set up an office across the pond, the Michelin guide kept its opinions of American eateries to itself. That changed yesterday, when Michelin announced its ratings for New York - the first American city to be so listed. 507 restaurants made it to the list while 39 recevied at least one star, catapulting New York to the top of the list of food cities - nearly. Paris still beat it handily with 70 starred restaurants, but what do the French know of food anyway? Michelin is not the lone star in the world. Gault-Millau (thats Go-Me-oh to you illiterates) - has its own 20-point rating system, and is considered influential enough to that a downgrade supposedly led to the suicide of superchef Bernard Loiseau. However, Gault-Millau does not deign to step out of continental Europe (even London isn't considered worth it). New York has long been full of guides. NY Times, Zagat, TONY, NY Metro, The Village Voice all publish reasonably influential ratings and reviews of restaurants in New York. Outside the city, however, the choices are far more limited - usually websites of local magazines and Internet city guides. After having suffered much at the hands of local newspapers that wax ecstatic at the slighest excuse, or Citysearch, AOL City Guide which provide a lot of information but unevenly reliable reviews, I've settled down with Gayot as possibly the most consistent. André Gayot, who once worked closely with Gault and Millau and was one of the earliest critics of the Michelin Guide, has a 20-point scale similar to Gault-Millau. The occassional lemon still surfaces but you're more likely than not to have a good meal when Gayot awards a 14 or higher. The website is hardly the model of usability, but Gayot has served me well in many cities - specially Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco and Austin.


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