Eat, pray, eat

“With people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds living together, our seasoned palates now demand something more exotic in terms of flavor.”

311_pasta dish (photo credit: MCT)
311_pasta dish
(photo credit: MCT)
When I was writing my pasta book, Sensational Pasta, over 20 years ago, I matched pasta with flavorings I love, including sauces from France and from India. Pasta, after all, can take subtle or robust flavors because of its neutral taste.
The same is true of pizza. When I came across naan pizza at this year’s Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, I found it intriguing. The pizza, produced by Tandoor Chef, was delicious. To the Italian combination of mozzarella cheese, sliced tomatoes, basil and garlic, the chefs added a subtle Indian touch – fresh coriander and sesame seeds. The crust of naan, an oval Indian bread traditionally baked in a tandoori oven, tasted more like laffa than a typical pizza crust. For another naan pizza they turned a popular Indian vegetarian dish, spiced spinach with paneer (Indian cheese), into a topping.
Mike Ryan of Tandoor Chef explained to me that the company created this fusion pizza in order to gradually introduce Indian flavors to pizza-loving Americans and to provide Indian vegetarians with new options.
Chef Sanjay Jaitley of Haldi Root (haldi means turmeric in Hindi), an Indian-Italian restaurant that just opened in Woodland Hills, California, vigorously opposes the idea of combining cuisines. A purist, he keeps his Italian and Indian menus completely separate. When I asked him if he might consider introducing Indian flavors to an Italian entree, his unequivocal answer was “fusion is confusion.” For example, an Indian sauce would be much too heavy for the delicate taste of veal scaloppini, he said.
The late chef Raji Jallepalli, author of Raji Cuisine: Indian Flavors, French Passion, felt that European cuisines could be beautifully married with the flavors of India. Although she loved classic French food, she began thinking, “This food could use some of the assertive flavors of my homeland.”
“Using very simple ingredients, such as potatoes or tomatoes, prepared in the style of each cuisine, you would find that the French dish would result in a sublime expression of the precise flavor of the main ingredient, while the Indian one would give you an intense explosion of a combination of heat and spice that would almost overpower the main ingredient. In my kitchen... I retain the basic principles and balance of French cuisine while introducing the profound bouquets of Indian cooking.”
AT HER POPULAR restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee, she added Indian spices like black mustard and cumin seeds to enhance such French dishes as ratatouille, the stew of Mediterranean vegetables, and finished it with fresh cilantro. She didn’t shy away from veal, combining it with lentils and flavoring the entree with French herbes de Provence, and olive oil, as well as Indian toasted mustard seeds and a curry blend that she made from roasted Indian spices. Even her foie gras gained an Indian touch, with fennel seeds and a crust of sauteed chickpea flour and ginger. She also recommended wines to accompany her dishes.
While Jallepalli added Indian tastes to French dishes, my friend, cooking teacher Neelam Batra, takes fusion in both directions. Her reason: “With people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds living together, our seasoned palates now demand something more exotic in terms of flavor.”
“I make pasta sauce with garden fresh tomatoes, ginger and mint, pizza with green cilantro chutney, hamburgers with scallions and garam masala,” she wrote in Chilis to Chutneys. “This innovative swapping of flavors carries into my traditional Indian dishes as well, when I borrow aromatic herbs, spices and foods (like tortillas... premade pizza crusts and stuffed pastas) from other cuisines to make some of my favorite Indian recipes.”
Beans, the traditional Indian vegetarian choice for protein, enhance the flavor of this pasta dish and make it more satisfying. Instead of the lima beans, you can substitute 11⁄2 cups cooked lentils, chickpeas or white beans, or a 400 gr. can of drained beans.
Most pasta shells cook in 5 to 8 minutes and thus can be cooked together with the broccoli florets and zucchini, which cook in the same time. If you are not sure of your pasta’s cooking time, cook it separately to avoid overcooking the vegetables.
For a richer sauce, add 1 or 2 tablespoons butter to the oil when sauteing the vegetables, and finish the sauce with 1⁄4 cup heavy cream.
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 or 2 fresh hot peppers, minced
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1⁄2 tsp. turmeric
a 400-g. can tomatoes, drained and diced, juice reserved
a 400-g. can tomato sauce
1⁄2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
11⁄2 cups cooked frozen lima beans or fava beans
1⁄2 cup frozen peas (optional)
225 to 350 g. medium-size pasta shells or other pasta shapes
11⁄2 cups small broccoli florets
2 white squash (kishuim) or zucchini, diced
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
Heat oil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until beginning to turn golden. Add hot peppers, ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in cumin, coriander and turmeric and heat for a few seconds. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, pepper flakes, salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add peas and cooked lima beans and heat through. If sauce is too thick, add reserved juice from diced tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Add pasta and broccoli florets to a large pot of boiling salted water and cook uncovered over high heat for 3 minutes. Add zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes or until pasta and vegetables are tender but firm to the bite. Drain mixture well, reserving 1⁄2 cup of the cooking liquid and transfer to a large, shallow serving bowl.
Meanwhile, reheat sauce. If it is too thick, add a little of the reserved cooking liquid or a little of the reserved juice from the diced tomatoes.
Toss pasta with two thirds of sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with cilantro, with remaining sauce in a separate bowl.
Makes 4 servings.
This recipe, from Raji Cuisine, is inspired by the cooking of southern France, with fresh ginger and ghee-sauteed zucchini adding an Indian touch. Ghee is Indian clarified butter; Yemenite samneh is similar. You can substitute melted butter. The fish is roasted briefly at a high temperature. Jallepalli recommends pairing it with a Chardonnay.
1⁄4 cup fennel seeds, crushed
 2 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
6 Tbsp. dry white wine
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
6 to 12 large fresh rosemary branches
6 whole boneless trout
3 Tbsp. ghee
3 cups diced zucchini (1-cm. dice)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 260ºC. Blend fennel seeds and ginger well in a blender or mini food processor. For a bold flavored vinaigrette, use all the mixture; for a more delicate taste, remove about half the mixture and set aside. (You can add it to soups.)
To the spice mixture in the blender add the wine. With the motor running, pour in the olive oil and process until well emulsified. Strain through a fine sieve into a nonreactive container and set aside.
Put 1 or 2 rosemary branches inside each fish. Rub both sides of the fish with some of the gingerfennel vinaigrette. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle fish with 2 tablespoons of ghee.
Roast fish in oven for about 5 minutes, or until skin has crisped and fish is cooked through.
While fish is roasting, heat remaining ghee in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add zucchini and saute for 3 minutes, or until heated through but still firm. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm.
Place a trout across the center of each of 6 dinner plates. Drizzle reserved vinaigrette over top of each fish and spoon a portion of zucchini under tail end.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.