Vikram Vij and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, own maybe the most splendid Indian restaurant I've ever eaten at: Vij's, in Vancouver, BC. It has many unique facets: A women-only kitchen, run by Meeru; a warm, welcoming environment dim and flickering with candles, presided over by Vikram; an incredibly fragrant, fresh interpretation of Indian dishes that each take your breath away. These two passionate and ambitious restauranteurs also have a home life infused with the good food they share at their two restaurants. But until just a few years ago, they didn't have a proper dining room. The journey to creating a dining room, and cooking at home more often, is detailed in their new cookbook: Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey.
Indian cooking often appears elaborate, time-consuming, and strange to those of us who are not accustomed to it. It can be the last thing we turn to for quick weeknight suppers. But the recipes in the new Vij's book offer a different perspective. While the first Vij's cookbook (Vij's: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine) recreated the exotic, sophisticated dishes from the restaurant, Vij's at Home turns towards the home kitchen and dining table.
That dining table is a new thing for this cooking couple. They ignored their own home for a long time as all their energies went into their restaurant and their children. The dining room was a combination office and playroom, and dinner parties meant that guests held their plates on their laps.
That finally changed a few years ago, and the introduction to this book describes the vast change in their family life. They began eating breakfast together and cooking together with their girls more often. "After not realizing what we were missing," they write, "the arrival of a dining table was like a balm to our lives. We've always loved cooking, but now our rewards are multiplied with the joys of being able to have friends over for dinner without any stress of rearranging kitchens and carrying folding tables and chairs. Simply put, we are less lonely with the freedom of being able to more often invite people over for a meal."
What a wonderful statement — how could we not love a cookbook that came out of such a realization and change? This book offers the sort of food that Meeru and Vikram cook at home: Many, many vegetarian dishes that can be made quickly, like Turnips and Tomatoes in Kalonji Masala, and Mung Beans in Coconut Curry. There are some meat and seafood dishes as well, like Fresh Fennel and Pork Curry.
They offer a guide to the spices they use, with notes on which spices really are optional. They talk about the role of the pressure cooker in Indian cooking, and wine pairings for their highly-spiced food.
And the whole book is illustrated with photos of them cooking at home with their two girls. There are all sorts of things I want to cook in this book, made accessible with Western measurements and terminology, paced and scaled for a weeknight cook. This is the kind of Indian food I want to cook!
The yogurt curry below is a perfect example of how this book works. It's incredibly simple and quick, and yet bursting with real flavor. Take a peek at this book, if you get a chance, and try this recipe. You'll be rewarded for both around your own dinner table.
• Find it: Vij's at Home: Relax, Honey - The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, $22.15 at Amazon
Tilapia in Yogurt and Ginger Curry
Yogurt can be a good alternative to onions and garlic. We don’t mean that they are similar in flavour, but yogurt is bold enough to carry a curry without the aid of onions and garlic. So, make this dish if you don’t
like onions or garlic or if you want a change from regular onion-based curries. You can just as easily add sautéed onions or garlic to this dish if you like, or not use ginger at all. This curry is a lighter version of Yogurt Curry (page 92).
At Rangoli, we serve variations of this curry with spiced, breaded and seared tilapia. You could use any white fish, but please make sure that the fish comes from a sustainable farm and that, if it’s wild, it isn’t an endangered or threatened fish. Buy the fillets boned, trimmed and scaled, or, if you prefer, buy the entire fish and prepare it yourself at home. If you’re a vegetarian, you can serve just the curry as a soup with rice on the side.
You can also sauté your favourite vegetables in some oil with salt and mix them with the rice and curry.
We always serve this dish with white basmati rice in a large bowl.
Yogurt and ginger curry
prep & cooking time: 30 minutes
2 1/2 cups plain yogurt (minimum 2% milk fat), stirred
1/3 cup cooking oil
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp asafoetida (optional)
3 Tbsp finely chopped ginger
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
2 Tbsp ground coriander
1 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional)
3 cups water
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Place yogurt in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium pot, heat oil on medium for 1 minute. Add cumin seeds and allow them to sizzle for 30 to 45 seconds, or until darker brown. Stir in asafoetida. It will sizzle within 30 to 45 seconds and darken, which means it is cooked. Add ginger, stir and sauté for 1 minute. Add salt, turmeric, coriander, paprika and cayenne and stir for 2 to 3 minutes. The spices will become slightly pasty. Turn off the heat and stir in water.
To prevent the yogurt from curdling, whisk 1 cup of the masala-water mixture into the yogurt. Pour the yogurt into the pot of masala-water and stir well with a whisk. Turn the heat to high and bring curry to a boil, whisking constantly, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Set aside while you prepare the fish.
Pan-seared breaded tilapia
6 whole fillets or 12 boned and trimmed fillets tilapia (1 1/2 to 2 lbs total), skin on
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp black pepper (optional)
1 tsp paprika (optional)
1/2 tsp asafoetida (optional)
6 to 8 tsp cooking oil
Pan-seared breaded tilapia If necessary, trim whole fillets by placing them on a cutting board and, using a large knife, cutting off and discarding the skimpy, whitish edges that are mostly skin (about 1/4 inch each side). Scrape any fish scales off the skin and discard them (there shouldn’t be too many on tilapia). And, if necessary, cut each fillet lengthwise down the middle and check for bones. You can usually cut them out quite easily by slicing a lengthwise V into the bones and pulling them out. You can also feel with your hands to see if there are any bones or scales still on the fish and pull out with your hands any that are left over. Wash the fillets and set them aside in a colander to dry for a few minutes. You should have a total of 12 small fillets.
In a large bowl, combine bread crumbs, cayenne, salt, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, paprika and asafoetida. Add tilapia fillets and mix carefully until fish is coated with the spiced bread crumbs.
Heat 1 tsp oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan on medium for 1 minute. Place 2 fillets, skin side down, in the frying pan and cook for about 2 minutes. (If the fillets begin to burn or stick to the pan, add a bit more oil.) Gently turn the fish over and cook the second side for 2 minutes, or until flesh flakes when gently poked with a knife. Transfer the cooked fil- lets to a baking sheet. Add 1 tsp oil to the frying pan, heat for 1 minute, then cook 2 more fillets. Repeat with the remaining fillets.
Finish curry: Heat curry on high and bring to a boil, stirring 2 to 3 times. Stir in cilantro and serve piping hot over tilapia fillets.
Spinach and Split Pea Mash
Spicy Cauliflower “Steak”
Red Bell Pepper and Shallot Curry
Shown here with: Beet Greens Sautéed in Ginger, Lemon and Cumin
(Image and recipe: Douglas & McIntyre)