Monday, May 5, 2008

Redemption in the Side Dishes

So I have a dirty secret. Last week, I made a meal out of a box.

I don't think you realize quite how serious this is: I have just lost all my moral high ground. Do's the one who waxes poetical about his childhood memories of Hamburger Helper, Do's the one who wouldn't let me throw out the Riceroni packages that had been left behind in our kitchen by the previous tenants. It's my role to be all snooty and expostulate on the value of daily family dinners from scratch, knowing what's in your food, that there's more to dinner than caloric intake.

Yeah, well. Part of being partners is being a bad influence. Do has become a sexy gourmet chef who makes dinners from scratch every other day... and I cooked out of a box last week.

Last weekend, I dragged Do back to that wonderful Indian grocery store in Rockville to restock on those addictive Kaju Kati Indian sweets. Do took advantage of my vulnerable state (I did pounce on 3 boxes of Indian sweets) and selected 4 boxed Indian dinners. Well, one thing led to another, it was a long week, I was feeling both uninspired and lazy... and... well.

He loved it. I loved it. We had seconds. And it took only an hour, mostly because I insisted on rescuing some dying veggies from the fridge and transforming them into side dishes. Boxed spice mixes may be the secret to eating Indian food on a weeknight. Well. I'm not quite ready to admit the error of my ways yet. But this could be the secret to surviving graduate school.

To accompany our boxed dinner, a South Indian chicken-coconut curry, I threw together some super quick sautéed spinach and some spiced rice. I'm including the recipes below because both were ridiculously simple but memorable, probably because of the spices. The spinach was smokey and spicy... not hot spicy but interesting spicy. I thought that the mustard seeds had moved beyond "roasted" and into "slightly charred," Do enthusiastically finished it off in its entirety: no leftovers.

The rice dish we had discovered before, and our opinion was confirmed: it's really impressive for a "supporting actor" role. It's not sexy, it won't make your guests' jaws drop, but it's solidly good and will keep you coming back for more. The spicing is subtle but unmistakable, and the bouillon cube gives the rice a heartier flavor. Less feminine, romantic Jane Austin and more Lara Croft.

Both recipes used mustard seeds, but we're still trying to distinguish what particular flavor mustard seeds deliver. Maybe the fact that we couldn't pick mustard seeds out of the flavor composition is a sign that both dishes were correctly spiced. Cool. Or it could mean that mustard seeds don't taste like much. Less cool. Hm. Clearly further experimentation is required. Aw, shucks.

Sautéed Spinach in Mustard Oil (inspired by Julie Sahni)
Serves 2 as a side, but is extremely amenable to proportional division

1 lb fresh spinach
1 Tbs mustard oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 dry chili pods
1 garlic clove
Lemon juice and salt, to taste
  1. Cut the stems off the spinach and wash the leaves.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet over high (but not smoking). Add mustard seeds. Keep the pot lid handy, as the seeds may fly all over as they pop. After 5 seconds, add the chili pod and fry until it turns several shades darker. add garlic and fry for 10 seconds. (I'm asking you to be quick is to prevent the mustard seeds from burning. This will be more or less of a concern depending on how high you have the heat.)
  3. Pile the spinach leaves on top and cook, turning them often and quickly, until they look wilted and moist. Continue cooking until most of the moisture evaporates and the spinach leaves are glazed (3-4 min).

Gently Spiced Rice with Peas (Madhur Jaffrey)
Serves 2

1 Tbs vegetable oil (I used walnut oil this time, worked great)
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds
1 cup long-grain rice
1.5 cups chicken or veggie broth (we use bouillon cubes for simplicity)
1 tsp salt
1 cup (or more!) peas, fresh or frozen

Over a medium flame, heat oil in a pot with a tight fitting lid. When hot, add the mustard seeds and wait until they begin to darken (10-20 seconds). Stir in the rice, and the peas. Stir for one minute. Add broth and salt and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce flame to very, very low. Leave to cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

(n.b. Jaffrey suggests adding the peas in the last 5 min of cooking if they are frozen, I didn't find that this extra juggling was necessary).


Ginny said...

Haha! Don't you sometimes just crave some kraft mac and cheese? I think boxes are sometimes allowed esp. if you make such a yummy side to go with! :)

Ruth Elkin said...

Hey Neen, thanks for stopping by my blog... thought I'd come and visit your little corner too!

I think sometimes boxes are just necessary... but only sometimes! I love cooking from scratch but it's not always handy. Plus you made some awesome sides! I think you pull it off well.

That Girl said...

I'm a such a die-hard spinach lover! I can't wait to try this!

noble pig said...

Well they look wonderful and fragrant I bet. You're redeemed!

Lisa said...

Well, especially since I started my blog, I rarely eat from a box, but I do admit to enjoying frozen pizza once and a while :) Your vegetable dishes sound great. I think I have made the pea rice, though I eat rice so often, I tend to forget which ones I have tried. It might have been a variation.

giz said...

I actually would love a "box of something" once in a while - unfortunately I'm such a sodium freak that my conscience kills me.

Emiline said...

I've been trying to avoid boxes lately, too. You just never know what kind of chemicals are in mixes and frozen foods.
Of course, tonight I ate store bought ice cream...*shrugs*

All of the sides sound really good. I would like to come over for dinner sometime.

kat said...

You know I do my Indian curries from a jar because I love the brand of sauces I found so why not...I add my own stuff to it but sometimes you just want that ease