Cookbook Challenge: Panch Phora Aloo

If you’ve spent much time around me and food has come up in the conversation, you probably know I have a passion for Indian food. Once upon a time, I set out to try every Indian buffet in the Boston area (there are over 50 accessible by the T, to say nothing of those accessible by the bus system) and documented my findings on a short-lived blog called “The Phantom Buffet”. During my journeys, I got to try all sorts of new dishes (and compare some ubiquitous dishes, served at almost every buffet).

Prior to that journey, however, I had spent 4 years in Maine as a cook at 2 well-regarded restaurants in a town full of good restaurants (and not just the seafood variety). I got pretty good, and some of the dishes I designed for one restaurant remain on the menu today.

So, as I wound down on the Indian buffet venture, I began to work on reproducing some of the dishes I enjoyed most. Some are too far from realistic for a home cook (I hope someday to have a kitchen with a tandoor, but not today) but others are eminently doable. Through several cookbooks, I have tried many recipes and discovered more and less successful ways of doing some of my favorite dishes, and have approached restaurant-quality meals in some cases. Last week, I finally decided to tackle an elusive favorite dish which I had yet to discover a viable recipe for: Jeera Aloo (and its delectable cousin, Methi Aloo).

The dish is simple in concept but less so in execution. Basically, they’re Indian homefries with whole spices and a really complex flavor that’s soaked up by perfectly-cooked potatoes. There are some complications: First, “perfectly-cooked” potatoes are hard to do. Mashed is easy, undercooking is woefully simple, but getting nicely-formed cubes that are fully cooked without being mushy is difficult. Second, getting the right flavor is hard because you can’t taste the potatoes until it’s too late to re-season them.

Another monkey-wrench thrown into the mix is the Cookbook Challenge. This is something my wife put me up to in order to help me trim my wall of cookbooks. She said, “You have 1 year. Make something out of every cookbook you want to keep. If you fail to make something out of a cookbook by the end of the year, the cookbook goes.”

Enter the Spice Bible. This is a book I was gifted some years ago and have glanced at but never really used. It’s unique in that it organizes its recipes by the dominant spice in the recipe. It also goes into some unusual spice mixes and pastes toward the end. And under one of those mixes, I found my recipe.

jeera-alooPanch Phora Aloo is a dish very much like Jeera Aloo, but with a more complex flavor palette. Instead of just jeera (cumin), it uses a spice mix consisting of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella and black mustard seeds (in equal amounts). It also uses copious quantities of ghee.

The first batch I made I followed the directions on but didn’t think too hard about seasoning. Salt would have been important but I didn’t use it until it was too late. The spice balance and heat level was good but salt brings the flavors to the forefront and the result was an unevenly-flavored dish that I was convinced I could do better.

I took a risk. Last Tuesday I had heard some old friends were all coming to the Tuesday Night Dinner — a potluck at the home of another old friend. When I can make it, people know that whatever I have to offer will be one of everyone’s favorites and the host will probably end up scraping the bottom of the dish and eating it right off the serving spoon. So I had to do it right. I changed one thing about the recipe: after sauteeing the panch phora and onions until nicely browned and fragrant, I added a liberal quantity of salt (about half the amount of whole spices) at the same time as adding the powdered turmeric, freshly-roasted and ground cumin and chili powder. This made the oily paste (sounds appetizing, right?) extra salty and flavorful just before adding the parboiled potato cubes and garlic. The naturally bland potatoes and the oversalted sauce combined to create — voila! — a perfectly-seasoned dish. After sauteeing for 15 or 20 minutes, the potatoes cut nicely and a taste test confirmed all was well. A bit of lime juice and cilantro tossed in at the last minute and the dish was ready.

At the Tuesday Night Dinner, it was one of only a handful of vegetarian dishes and therefore much appreciated by the handful of vegetarians — but lauded by many others as well. In the end, the score was Potluck: 1; Cookbook Challenge: 1; Phantom Buffet: 0. That’s one more dish I don’t need to search out on the buffets and menus of Boston — now I can do it myself just as well or better!

I hope you enjoy my culinary adventures. Remember, if you want to turn these off and just read my music or knitting content, use the “Choose Your Own Adventure” floater to your right.

Leave a Reply