Kalonji (Warm Tomato Chutney) and recipes vs. learning

A long discussion of food, cookbooks and the study of learning processes from my experiences as a professional cook. Skip to the end if you’re just here for the chutney, which is delightful!

One Spice, Two Spice

one spice, two spice
One Spice, Two Spice, by Floyd Cardoz and Jane Daniels Lear

One of the fantastic things about attending cooking school is the gateway it provides to great kitchens. To those who care nothing about the construction of food, it might seem silly to want to roam among the pots and cutting boards, but to the food obsessed, the opportunity to seek out behind-the-swinging-door secrets is truly the stuff of salivation.

As a culinary student, one is encouraged to “trail” in as many kitchens as one can without succumbing to exhaustion. A trailing cook simply sets up appointments with chefs or sous-chefs and arrives at the kitchen with knives in tow, ready to work on basic vegetable prep.

Generous chefs generally let the trailing student watch (and sometimes assist with) the set-up for evening dinner service, and they may let the student observe the service period itself (from a safely removed vantage point).

As a student, I trailed at Tabla. I loved the kitchen, the food, the ingredients and the fact that Chef Floyd Cardoz had a whole room dedicated to organizing and storing (and to my mind, exalting) the spices. I took an internship there, which turned into a job.

Young cooks tend to switch kitchens fairly often, but I stayed… for years. Indian food was so fascinating!

Far beyond the pasty yellow curries and soupy palek paneers served in a million tiny take-out restaurants, Floyd Cardoz worked to advocate rich braises and light, crisp tandoori breads, bizarrely spiced pickles and chutneys, and soups with more types of lentils than I’d ever seen. He brought me lotus roots and fuzzy melons, litchis, aleppo pepper, long squash and mung beans.

One doesn’t often encounter fresh water chestnuts in the wilds of South Dakota (where I grew up), but Chef had ‘em. And like so many things at Tabla, they were a revelation (“Wow… they’re nutty. They don’t taste like a can at all!"). Every week I discovered five new things I could do with vegetables I’d never before encountered.

After years of daily practice with Indian techniques from making tarkas to pickling, spice toasting, braising and simmering, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the challenges to preparing delicious Indian foods in the American home kitchen.

The biggest difficulties:

  1. Understanding the techniques to layer in the traditional flavors
  2. Acquiring good (or even appropriate) ingredients
  3. Developing enough experience with good examples of the cuisine

Naturally, I’ve clung to my battered and stained copies of Chef’s recipes for the years since I left Tabla. And since these are the restaurant-sized versions of his dishes, they all have phenomenally large batch instructions (first, dice 50 tomatoes…), and I struggle in my own kitchen to accurately size them down. No one household needs 4 gallons of pickled ramps, however tasty those little buggers might be.

But Chef has now published a collection of the very recipes that my ugly, wrinkled home volumes contain. Thankfully, his One Spice, Two Spice was also written with household sizing in mind.

I always wonder about the accuracy of chef-written cookbooks. Are the recipes oversimplified? Have the authors held back a few kitchen secrets? So I was particularly interested to compare my kitchen notes to Chef’s published variations.

Having made the great majority of the recipes in One Spice, Two Spice recipe in a large-scale environment, I can verify the content in these small-scale versions is really pretty accurate!

There’s a fore-section that explains the importance of the way one treats one’s spices. Readers will discover the “whys” behind toasting, tarkas and whole-spice usage.

For home renditions of Indian foods, much of the first difficulty I mentioned above (understanding technique) can be remedied with this book. Unfortunately, this – or any other – book can only do so much for those have difficulty acquiring appropriate ingredients and figuring out what the finished product is really supposed to taste like.

As much as I love books (and cookbooks specifically), One Spice, Two Spice has forced me to the conclusion that cookbooks, cooking videos and even food blogs like this one, are limited.

Why? The core secrets of any cuisine are physical: first, the education of the tongue, and second, the training of the hand. These skills are best transmitted through time spent with a skilled teacher. So recipes, even well-written recipes, are at best, simply a collection of notes to jog the memory.

That said, I’ve retyped one of my favorite basic sauces herein. The more obscure ingredients (like tamarind paste and nigella seed) can be found at most specialty shops these days, and this version, when properly seasoned, will make a good product.

At Tabla’s Bread Bar, it’s called Kalonji and it’s served with cheddar-cheese stuffed naan, which I realize is a fancy version of the American lunch favorite: toasted cheese sandwiches dipped in tomato soup.

So if you don’t happen to have a home tandoor, you might try dipping your cheese sandwich, flatbread or breadsticks in this chutney. Or serve it as a sauce alongside rice dishes or vegetables, beef or lamb.

Warm Tomato Chutney (Kalonji) (from One Spice, Two Spice by Chef Floyd Cardoz)

Two 28-ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped peeled ginger
1 cup finely chopped white onion
2 small dried red chiles, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
1 tablespoon sugar

Roughly puree the tomatoes to a medium-coarse consistency in batches in a blender or food processor.

Heat the oil in a 4- to 6-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and nigella seeds, shaking the skillet, and when they pop and are fragrant, after about 30 seconds, quickly add the garlic, ginger, onion, and chiles. Immediately reduce the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring, until the garlic and onion have softened. (Don’t let them color.) Stir in a pinch of salt and the tomato puree. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Stir in the tamarind paste, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste, then remove the chutney from the heat. Serve the chutney warm.

The chutney keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or in the freezer for 1 month.

Note: If you can find them, I like the Muir Glen organic tomatoes, either plain, or for a little more kick, the “Fire Roasted” variety.

Happy cooking!

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