Monday, November 05, 2007

Indian food... with the executive chef of Au Bon Pain?

I seriously wonder if this class isn't secretly called "101 Ways to Break Down a Chicken" sometimes. For every chef we've done chicken which (and that's a good number of them) they've shown us their own technique for breaking down a chicken, who knew there were so many options?

I enjoyed today with chef John, he was a good teacher and clearly had a lot of knowledge about Indian cuisine and Indian food in general. He explained a little bit of information about how the regional food of India varies, even within the same region because of religious groups. I'm all for it, the possibility of eating three different local cuisines based on regional agriculture is a far more efficient use of resources than most other countries.

We did a few different dishes from different parts of India today: parantha and tandoori chicken, and curry shrimp and lemon rice with peanuts. Presumably, the curry shrimp is from the southern part of India, based on the inclusion of seafood.

We started by working on the dough for the parantha and the marinade for the tandoori chicken. Chef mentioned something interesting while we started, saying that the food found in Indian restaurants is like a strange sub-grouping of Indian food, it's not food that is eaten anywhere else, generally, only in Indian restaurants, even in India. I've eaten in Indian restaurants in India - he's right, it's the same menu. It never occurred to me that would be happen within a culture (it's different if a cuisine has adopted because of local influences, Chinese -American food exists only in Western areas) but there you have it.

The dough was very soft and very oily, a very different type of dough than we'd been used to working with. It didn't matter if this dough cold, it just needed to be rested at room temperature for a little while. I'm certainly very appreciative of low-maintenance dough making, I think home kitchen temperatures can be difficult to control and inconsistent, so doughs and batters that don't care are more user-friendly and more likely to actually be done again in my house.

The marinade for the chicken was very pungent, in a good way, but still very pungent. That was a lot of spice for only one chicken, and I thought we could have cut back on it a bit. (Later on, Thomas actually realized that he did have the recipe portions off a little and we were to cut back a bit on the spices and increase the amount of yogurt a bit. Vindication!) After breaking down the chicken and removing the skin the way Thomas had shown us (his method had to be the most graphic, it really reminded you of it being a living creature earlier), we made incisions along the meat to help it cook faster and more evenly and rubbed a paste of lemon juice, salt and chili powder all over the meat and let it sit while we made the rest. Mixing mace, cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, ginger garlic paste and yogurt, we made the second stop for the chicken and dropped the pre-rubbed chicken in, where it would sit until we were ready to cook it. This was a very messy procedure but I really enjoyed doing it. Cooking needs to be tactile, I'll never understand people who are uncomfortable touching food.

Next, we prepared the filling for the parantha, which could be set aside and left to cool. This was probably the easiest thing we'd done all day - a very simple mixture of smashed potatoes with cilantro, ginger and chilies. Again, this bread is so simple, I'd certainly be happy to make this again at home.

I think a lot of us assumed that Indian food was complicated and hard to make at home, I did. Maybe it was because of all the spices and herbs needed, but I never would have thought it would be a quick and easy process. All day, I kept feeling like we weren't doing things right because it was all coming out so fast. I wonder if anyone else felt this way.

The demo for the shrimp curry with coconut was the most surprising of the day, the technique was very similar to Chinese cooking, a quick sauté and a general idea of the cooking time of foods is all you needed. This was the best dish of the day, because I think for a lot of us, southern Indian food is a new type of flavor. The addition of coconut milk and the sweetness of this curry reminded us of Thai curries, although it should be the other way around given that curry originated in India. I also think it's a little unusual how little substance there was in the curry (just shrimp and diced tomato), I know it should be eaten with rice, but it doesn't seem like enough stuff. Maybe, I'm becoming more and more westernized!

We served the curry over the rice (which was tossed with turmeric powder, butter, peanuts and lemon juice) and it was just perfect. I think the flavoring in the rice actually made it feel like a complete dish, although I'm sure that if we had only plain rice, it'd be delicious too.

Chef starting cooking all of the tandoori under the broiler while we finished up making the parantha. Portioning out the dough into smaller rounds, we rolled it out into a small disk and filled it with the potato mixture we'd made earlier, then bunched the dough around it. It actually looked a little like a change purse.

Next, we had to roll out the filled round of dough, which is a lot harder than it looks. Ashish told us that it was actually an old-fashioned test of a girl in India, to see if she could make parantha without having any of the filling fall out. If it came out perfectly, she was ready to be married off... I'm apparently never going to get married off. All of my paranthas fell apart and looked like a doughy, potato-y explosion in on the rolling board, in the pan and on the plate. And I kept burning them in the pan! I don't know if it was the heat, if I didn't dust off enough flour or if there wasn't enough oil, but the wonderful puff and lift that we saw in the bread when Thomas did his demo never happened for me. So sad. Well... at least it still tasted good.

The tandoori chicken was too strongly spiced for me and was glad to know that it wasn't me and Thomas agreed, scaling back the spice mix and adding some more yogurt to the marinade. It was very good though, and much juicier than most restaurants. Most of the times I've ordered tandoori chicken in a restaurant, the meat is very dry, even the thigh meat. The breast meat here was a little dry, but I think if I did the recipe again and added in the extra yogurt that Thomas mentioned, it would help tenderize and soften the breast.

Overall, it was a good day. I think Thomas imparted a lot of food and cultural knowledge on us and really gave us a good overview of how diverse and complex food from India can be.

We ran out of time, otherwise I would have liked to ask him about working for a company like Au Bon Pain and what that means in terms of production and food, particularly given how many countries the chain exists in. I would like to know how, if at all, he creates special local dishes for the different chains, because I imagine that other locations may not always need or want to have New England Clam Chowder on the menu. Of all the chefs we've had so far, I think he's the one working for a company with the widest reach, ,I think his view of the food world from there would have been really interesting for us to hear.