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Incantations of a Spice Mistress

Incantations of a Spice Mistress: A review of quickfix

Quick-Fix Indian: Easy Exotic Dishes in 30 Minutes or Less by Ruta Kahate

(Andrews McMeel Publishing 2012)

Reviewed by Cheryl Angelina Koehler 

recall an especially poignant question Ruta Kahate posed at one of popular Indian cooking classes in Rockridge five years ago, right around the time her cookbook 5 Spices, 50 Dishes: Simple Indian Recipes Using Five Common Spices, was published. She asked how fresh we thought the spices in our spice cabinets might be. If they were more that six months old, she suggested, we might want to toss them out and buy fresh ones. Spices are key ingredients in Indian cooking, and their vitality is part of the key. Buying spices whole and grinding them ourselves was yet another way of ensuring maximum freshness.

As we went on to prepare a five-course meal under Ruta’s guidance, we learned firsthand how fun it is to toast and grind spices, and we saw how the process brought greater awareness of what each spice contributes to the flavor of the dish.

On returning home and assessing the state of my collection, I realized I could count on one hand the herbs and spices I had purchased in the past year. The rest looked like a photo album documenting the one-night-stands of a cook addicted to exotic cooking adventures­­: mementos of fun meals rather than colors in a daily cooking palette. Standing at the compost bin, dumping jars of spent, but still aromatic powders onto the heap, I thought about how I was neither enjoying the intense flavors nor gaining the health benefits that might have been derived from those seeds, leaves, roots, and flowers had I managed to use them when they were fresh. With a whole new appreciation of Indian food, plus some handy techniques brought home from the class, I vowed to make long-lasting love to a more ephemeral spice collection.

Since that time, studies have produced increasing evidence of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in some of the mainstay Indian seasonings. For instance, in 5 Spices, Ruta mentions the antimicrobial characteristic of turmeric, and now five years later in Quick-Fix, she is able to point out how its active ingredient, curcumin, is being studied for its antioxidant nature with implications in prevention of such diseases as cancer and Alzheimer’s. (I’ve also been learning that curcumin works as an antiinflamatory.)

rutaMany people who love Indian food for its flavor, never mind the health benefits, are hesitant to undertake the imagined long hours over the stove stirring up complex sauces. Here is where Ruta’s gifts as a teacher truly shine. Both books emphasize and outline her approach to efficiency in the kitchen. These ideas come from a busy modern woman who opens Quick-Fix Indian with a dedication to her daughters: “Mira and Lola, who robbed me of my time and made me a quick-fix cook.” (Ruta and her kids pictured at left. Photo courtesy of McMeel Publishing)

A good part of Ruta’s strategy involves preparing a working pantry of such staples as cooking oils, rice, flour, and dals (pulses), in addition to the spices. She explains and emphasizes how this makes possible her own manner of cooking on the fly with whatever produce, meat, or seafood she may have just found at the market. The stocked pantry means she’ll always have the basics on hand for turning fresh foods into tasty dishes.

Ruta also suggests creating a “shortcut shelf” in the fridge for ready-prepared batches of “the usual suspects” called for in many of her recipes: garlic paste, ginger paste, ghee, brown onions, various masalas (spice pastes), and paneer (a fresh cheese made from milk and lemon juice or vinegar). The “suspects” could be purchased at one of our numerous East Bay Indian markets, but following Ruta’s instructions, none are hard to make, and doing so lets us choose local, organic base ingredients.

Two things struck me as I delved into Quick-Fix for the purposes of this review: One is that the recipes don’t have sexy names that I could list here to get mouths watering, and the other is that the book includes no glossy, four-color photographs with ideas for how to wow guests with a snazzy presentation. It’s not a coffee-table book or gourmet guide. In Quick-Fix Indian, Ruta Kahate brings us a sensible plan for putting delicious dishes from an ancient and healthful cuisine onto our daily table.

Now go to work on your spice cabinet. •

Meet Ruta Kahate on Friday July 20, 4–6pm at The Pasta Shop, 5655 College Avenue in Oakland. Ingredients and recipes will be available for sampling and purchase. Info: 510.250.6005, www.pastashop.net.

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