With the benefit of a dose of annual introspection over the New Year break, I've realized that I'm not quite as experimental as I'd like to be in the kitchen. No where does my Indian-ness shine as brightly as it does in the kitchen. When I see a pile of shiny okra in the grocery store, it is a pan of bhindi fry, not Southern style gumbo, that pops up in my head. It is the same with every other vegetable that is part of our regular rotation. Spinach usually makes its way into some version of saag, capsicum/green peppers go into my mother's hit paneer-capsicum curry, and green beans are inevitably cooked Kerala style, with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
There aren't all that many vegetables on the list to begin with - there are only so many locally available ones that are familiar to our Indian palate. I stare at the rhubarb and rutabaga and the radicchio in the fresh produce aisle and wonder to myself - now what would I do with you?
I am not in want of inspiration. I visit the neighborhood library every so often, and load our trunk with more cookbooks that I can leaf through in a few weeks. On a recent trip to India, I was reunited with many of my cookbooks. To top it all, I am an ardent admirer of The New York Times' Food section, and have a growing list of promising bookmarked recipes, all waiting to be tried out.
I thought long and hard and realized that there are at least a few factors at play that are keeping rhubarb, rutabaga, radicchio and their other, similarly unfamiliar brethren, away from our dinner plates.
There's risk aversion - on a weekday night, after a long day at work, a bad dinner is a tragedy of substantial proportions.
Then, there's habit - my fingers reach for the garam masala instinctively, no matter what it is that is bubbling away on the stove. It takes some resolve to pry my fingers loose from the spice rack, and look elsewhere in my kitchen cabinets for edible verve.
And finally, there's nostalgia - so far away from home, there's something to be said about the everyday comfort derived from familiar, homemade Indian food - in a simple dal, in bhindi fry, a childhood favorite, and in other flavors that make home seem closer than it is.
But in seeking the comfort of familiarity, I am losing out on the joys of discovery. And so, in this season of resolutions, one of my resolutions is to become more experimental in the kitchen.
In that spirit, here's one recipe that I recently experimented with in my kitchen. It is based on a recipe by Melissa Clark of The New York Times, which in turn, is based on a traditional Lebanese dish of eggplant, ground lamb and pine nuts. I swapped out the ground lamb in the recipe for ground turkey, and left out the pine nuts altogether, in an effort to keep this as light a dish as possible. I also used a homemade tomato sauce instead of the canned version. Here's my version of the recipe, which we enjoyed over a couple of leisurely weeknights.
Eggplant and Turkey Casserole
1 lb ground turkey
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
½ medium red onion, finely chopped
1 packet taco seasoning (because it was on hand and because the ground cinnamon suggested in the original recipe sounded too bland! I used McCormicks, 1.25 oz packet)
1 medium tomato, chopped
a handful of chopped cilantro
salt and pepper, to taste
2 globe eggplants, sliced
½ green pepper
6 medium sized pureed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp canned tomato paste
red chilli flakes, to taste
pepper powder, to taste
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
salt and sugar to taste
grated mozzarella cheese, to top
Heat broiler and line a baking sheet with foil or parchment.
Brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Arrange slices on prepared baking sheet and broil in batches until they are deep mahogany brown, turning once halfway through, 5 to 7 minutes per side.
Adjust the oven to 375 degrees with rack positioned in the center.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, but not browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground turkey and tomato, stirring frequently and breaking up meat into very small pieces with the side of a spoon. Add taco seasoning, and salt if/as needed. Sauté until meat is cooked and the mixture has turned quite dry, with most of the moisture having evaporated. Taste and add more salt or pepper, or both, as needed. Mix in chopped cilantro, and set aside.
For the tomato sauce, heat oil in a pan. Add the bay leaf and the garlic. Saute until the garlic has turned golden brown. Now, add the chopped onion and saute until translucent. Now add the chopped pepper, pureed tomatoes, tomato paste, and cook on low to medium heat (watching for splutters) till the sauce cooks down substantially to a desired, thick consistency. Season with salt and sugar, to taste. I found that a few teaspoons of sugar were needed to cut down the acidity of the tomatoes, but safest to keep adding and tasting till you are happy with the result. Add ground pepper and chilli flakes, to taste. Remove the bayleaf, and set aside.
In a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish, spread 1/3 of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Lay 1/3 of the eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce, covering as much surface area of the bottom of the dish as possible. Spoon half the meat evenly over eggplant. Pour 1/3 of the remaining tomato sauce evenly over meat. Layer again with eggplant, meat, and tomato sauce. Finish with a layer of eggplant.
Cover pan with foil and bake. Original recipe called for 90 minutes, but I found 30 mins to to be sufficient. Remove foil and top the dish evenly with mozzarella. Bake for 15 minutes longer, uncovered, or until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve eggplant warm. I served this with toasted sourdough bread.