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An elegant chicken dinner

I didn’t even know what sort of a cooking rut I was in until I got a copy of Floyd Cardoz’s fusion-Indian cookbook, One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors, coauthored with Jane Daniels Lear (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2006). As I leafed through the book, I realized how many things I never do: For instance, I never layer fresh ginger with dried ground ginger; I never use fenugreek (mildly bitter seeds and leaves from a Eurasian plant that taste a little like maple syrup when toasted); and, frankly, not only do I not use the spice anardana, I’ve never even heard of it. (It’s a seasoning made by drying pomegranate seeds and grinding them to a fine powder; it’s available in ethnic markets and online.) Sometimes you really do need an outside perspective to see yourself, or your cooking, at all.

Cardoz knows something about the value of that outsider’s perspective. Raised in India, he went to cooking school in Switzerland and then came to prominence in the New York City French-tinted kitchen of the great Swiss-born, Singapore-influenced chef Gray Kunz. He was able to seize the best elements of each of those global cuisines for his own cooking, so when he opened his restaurant, Tabla, it was a revelation.

I make a point of visiting Tabla, or its more casual, less expensive sister restaurant, the Bread Bar, every time I’m in New York, because the food is like none other on Earth. The flavors are vibrant, the textures are light, and I always walk out feeling healthy and happy — not weighted down and bloated. That’s another reason why this cookbook was such a revelation: I could see for myself why his foods taste so good — it’s spice, not fat!

I talked recently with Chef Cardoz about the new perspectives his book, and his food, had offered me. “What happens in most traditional cooking,” he told me, “is that you get your flavor from fats — from cream, butter, and so forth, which we naturally respond to because they taste good. However, if you’re not getting your flavor from those, you have to get your flavor somewhere, and spices are simply a much healthier alternative.”

The healthiness of spices is something modern American science is just beginning to quantify. For instance, in 2002, the journal Cancer published a paper showing that curcumin, the yellow pigment in the Indian spice turmeric, stopped many cancer cells cold. Cinnamon has been shown to help the body regulate insulin and, thus, control diabetes. Garlic is a well-known antibacterial agent. But modern science is really just catching on to something that Indian cooks have sensed for generations.

“In India we use a lot of ghee [a.k.a. clarified butter] in our cooking,” Cardoz explained. “And yet there’s less heart disease and obesity in India than in America. Spices help the body react to and process the foods we eat — using spices just kind of helps the body process and utilize the foods we eat in the best possible way.”

Lots of Americans hear “spice” and think “hot like fire,” Cardoz said. Yet hot is just one small part of the spice palette. “A lot of people think that Indian food is spicy and that it’s that way because we use spice to help preserve the food,” he said. “But, in fact, spices were developed to support the body with what people call the ‘Ayurvedic’ principles. For example, in southern India, we use more chilies because the fire of chilies makes you sweat and brings the body temperature down. So that’s considered a cooling spice. However, in the cooler north, they rely on warming spices — cardamom, cinnamon, mace and, to a certain extent, cloves. These warming spices warm the body from the inside out. These principles of spicing have come down through the ages: Fenugreek is a digestive, fennel seeds cure an upset stomach, and so on.”

Cardoz said he frequently hears from guests in his dining room at Tabla who assumed that because they were eating such a wide variety of unfamiliar spices that they’d wind up with a stomachache, but they don’t because of these ancient traditions of spicing.

If all this talk of unfamiliar spicing has you hankering to try something new, the Roast Chicken With Fenugreek recipe reprinted here from Cardoz’s book is a great place to start. It starts someplace familiar, with a simple oven-roast bird, and veers off into, at least for me, completely new waters. It’s funny: We often say that to really understand someone, we should walk a mile in her shoes. What if we could cook for a week with someone else’s spices? We might come away with an entirely new perspective.

Roast Chicken With Fenugreek

Serves six

1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
2 tbs. anardana (dried pomegranate seeds)
2 tbs. dried fenugreek leaves
2 tbs. thinly sliced, peeled fresh ginger
2 tbs. chopped garlic
1 mild to moderately hot fresh green chili
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
3 tbs. olive or canola oil, plus oil for rubbing chickens
Kosher salt
Two 3-pound chickens, rinsed, drained and patted dry

Toast the fenugreek seeds in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking the skillet, until fragrant and a couple of shades darker — about three minutes. Transfer the seeds to a tray or small plate to cool. Toast the peppercorns the same way and add them to the fenugreek seeds. Finely grind the toasted spices, dried pomegranate seeds and fenugreek leaves together in an electric coffee or spice grinder.

Purée the ginger, garlic, chili, lime juice and 3 tablespoons of oil in a mini food processor or blender until smooth. Add the ground spices and salt to taste, and purée again briefly to blend.

Work your fingers underneath the skin of the chickens and loosen the skin from the meat on both the body and the legs. (Be gentle; you don’t want to tear the skin.) Generously smear half of the spice paste between the skin and meat of each bird. If you have any spice paste left over, smear it inside the cavities of the birds. Truss the chickens with kitchen string. (That way, if the skin breaks, the spice will stay on the birds.) Marinate the chickens, covered, in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to 12 hours. Let them sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before roasting.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the chickens with a little canola oil and put them on a rack inside a roasting pan.

Roast the chickens in the middle of the oven for 12 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and roast for one hour longer, or until the juices run clear when the birds are pierced with a fork. Let the chickens stand for 10 minutes before cutting into serving pieces.

Kashmiri Greens

Serves six

4 pounds braising greens
1 tbs. canola oil or olive oil
1/4 tsp. asafetida (as-a-feh-TEE-dah; a spice made from fennel resin that tastes like mild garlic after cooking. Store it in a very tightly sealed container.)
2 tsp. cumin seeds
2 large shallots, sliced
1/2 cup julienne strips peeled ginger
1 small dried red chili, broken in half
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Discard the touch stems from the greens. Chop the tenders and set aside, then roughly chop the leaves.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers and add the asafetida and cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, until the spices are fragrant, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the shallots, ginger and chili, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, about three to four minutes. Add the stems of the greens and salt to taste, then cook, stirring, for one minute. Add the greens, and cook, tossing occasionally with tongs, until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the chili, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Chilies, Dried

“When I call for a “small dried red chili,” I mean the cayenne type, about 2 inches long. Avoid the tiny Thai or bird chilies; they are too fiery. I also used dried pasilla de Oaxaca chilies, familiar to devotees of Mexican and American Southwest cooking: Their mellow smokiness reminds me of the smoked chilies that hung over the woodstove in my grandmother’s kitchen. If I can’t find pasillas de Oaxaca, I use a mix of New Mexico and chipotle chilies. If you ever see Kashmiri chilies, grab them — they are a true taste of India.”

Note: If you want a spicier dish, break the chili into smaller pieces.
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Avocado Salad

Serves six

2 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
6 ripe, but firm, Hass avocados
2 tsp. grated lime zest (from about 2 limes)
1/3 cup lime juice (from about 2 limes)
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1 cup diced plum tomato
2 tbs. finely sliced cilantro
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp. cayenne
Pinch of sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toast the cumin seeds in a dry, small skillet over moderately low heat, shaking the skillet, until fragrant and a couple of shades darker, about three minutes. Turn them out on a tray or small plate to cool. Finely grind the seeds in an electric spice/coffee grinder.

Cut each avocado in half lengthwise and remove the pit. Scoop out each half in one piece with a large spoon and lay it, cut side down, on a cutting board. Cut each into 1/2-inch pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Gently toss the avocado pieces with the lime zest and juice. Fold the onion, tomato and cilantro into the avocados. Fold everything together carefully so that you don’t smash the avocados or tomatoes. Fold in the oil, cumin, cayenne, and sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or refrigerate, surface covered with plastic wrap, for up to two hours.

Recipes excerpted from One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors by Floyd Cardoz, with Jane Daniels Lear (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2006).

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