I’ve come to love Indian cuisine and thank myself for volunteering at my father’s senior center where I met a very special woman. Mina was from Goa, India and she became my mentor teaching me, hands-on, how to make delicious Indian dishes. They were something so different from the American dishes I’d grown up with. But, a line from a small cookbook I created of the recipes I’d learned, put the dishes in perspective “I had never thought of my American food experience as a cuisine. Mina, though, would smile because these delectable pulaos, curries and dhals were the pot roasts and tuna casseroles of her world.”
I’ve taken it upon myself to get creative with Indian dishes. My favorite haunt for the required spices is Puget Sound Consume Coop. It and other natural food markets sell spices in bulk. Exploring Indian food shops is fun, but not necessary for the ingredients in the dishes I create. I also enjoy simplifying the dishes; making them easier for my friends and acquaintances to try. And, my Indian cuisine adventures are always popular at potlucks and at gatherings requesting hors d oeuvres.
Indian Italian FusionThe idea for a casserole with the Italian-inspired ingredients of polenta and cheese came from an Italian vegetarian cookbook I was perusing one day. After becoming accustomed to the amazing flavors Indian spices can bring to vegetables, I knew I could bring its layered vegetable and polenta dish idea up a notch. (Interestingly, Indian cuisine rarely uses corn meal or corn in general. If a polenta like texture is desired, most often semolina, more common to India, is used.)
My casserole dish is 2-quarts and round and I’ve made a smaller version in a loaf pan. This recipe uses polenta layers. To simplify this dish, you use a prepared polenta roll placing slices down as the layers. You’ll also need about 8 oz. grated cheddar cheese (vegans can use plant-based cheddar cheese) to layer between the vegetables and the polenta and to top the casserole.
The vegetable portion is a delicious East Indian dhal, think stewed vegetables. The term dhal refers to a dish that incorporates dried peas, beans or lentils. This dish was my introduction to zucchini playing a featured role, not buried in quick bread or battered and fried in oil. The vegetables are simmered with ginger, garlic, a simple, aromatic spice mixture and stirred together with dried yellow peas. They can also be served alone as a vegetarian main dish over Basmati rice
Serves 8 over rice as a main dish or as part of the casserole.
The Boiled Peas
1 cup dried yellow peas, rinsed. (Don’t substitute green peas) Available at some supermarkets, bulk food markets and online.
2 ½ cups water and more as needed. (You can use vegetable stock if desired.)
½ medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds (available in natural food stores or markets with bulk spices, also, online.)
1 teaspoon turmeric (available in all spice sections)
2 teaspoons garam masala (a spice mixture available at natural food stores or markets with bulk spices, also online.
1 Tablespoon chopped ginger (to simplify and keep on hand I use pre-chopped from a jar, frozen cubes or tubes of paste, all usually available in super markets.)
1 Tablespoon crushed garlic (I often use pre-chopped from the produce section)
1 large sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 green pepper, chopped in 1” chunks
1 jalapeno seeds and all, chopped fine (You can omit this or if you like a dish with an extra kick, add another jalapeno.)
3 (6”) zucchini scraped leaving a bit of green skin and sliced into 1/4” rounds. (I use a zester on the skin, attractively leaving lines of green).
1 – 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes. (I use petite diced)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoon water
Salt and some pepper to taste
1 Tube of prepared Polenta sliced into ½” slices and used at room temperature (available in Deli sections of most markets)
8 oz. of sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
Wash the split peas and place them in a saucepan with the water (or stock) and salt. Bring to a boil while you coarsely chop the ½ onion for the peas. Add the onion, cover and simmer until the peas are soft but still whole (about 25 minutes). Add water as needed so they don’t boil dry. When the peas are soft, but still whole, drain and set aside.
While the peas are simmering, chop the onion, green pepper and jalapeno (if using) putting them together in a bowl. Slice the zucchini and put it into a separate bowl. Open the can of tomatoes. Put the crushed or chopped garlic and ginger into a dish. Put the brown mustard seeds in a dish. Put the garam masala and turmeric together in another dish. Now you’re set for easy preparation.
Add the oil to the pan and bring to medium high heat, when oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Cover and fry briefly until they start popping 30 seconds or so (don’t let them burn). Quickly add the chopped onion, green pepper and jalapeno, frying gently. Stir periodically for around 10 minutes until the vegetables soften, adding the ginger and garlic toward the end of cooking. When the vegetables have softened, stir in the turmeric and garam masala, blending well, and cook for 1 minute.
Turn the heat to medium low and stir in the zucchini slices, tomatoes, lemon juice and water. Simmer a bit adding salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until the zucchini has softened. Turn off heat and carefully fold the drained split peas into the vegetables.
Taking It Up a Notch - Indian-Italian FusionTo turn these delicious vegetables into an Indian Italian Fusion Casserole, generously spoon some of the vegetables onto a layer of ½-inch rounds of prepared polenta and top with cheddar cheese, place another layer of polenta rounds, another generous layer of vegetables, and another layer of cheddar. You can add a third layer of any remaining polenta rounds a light layer of vegetables and top it with cheddar cheese. Bake at 400 degrees until the casserole is heated through and bubbling.
When serving guests set it off with some toasted Naan flatbread, available in most supermarkets, and a fresh salad. Be prepared to amaze anyone with whom you share it, even the vegetable-challenged in your life.
Marilyn Michael grew up in Eastern Washington in a family who worked hard, laughed a lot, and embraced friends and the larger community. Enjoying good food, and caring about others were values she carried forth. In college, feeling the passions of Second Wave Feminism, she joined the drive for more equitable roles for women. That, and her early family values, led her to a career as a psychotherapist, and later as a writer. She developed a mind/body method of therapy she continues to teach and write about: www.therapyofthefuture.com .
“Regarding my food heritage”, Marilyn recalls, “our meals were basic American fare, and delicious, made with the philosophy, If you want good food, use good ingredients.” With the amazing fresh produce that emerged from their huge and thriving yearly gardens she developed a love for anything green and fresh. There were huckleberry picking treks and days spent gathering peaches for canning and cucumbers for pickling. Those food gathering treks always involved extended family and friends.
Marilyn has been involved with senior centers all her life, never experiencing ageism often common in younger folks. Her grandparents actually started their hometown senior center and the family always took part. Believing we need to “fuel our creative souls” at all ages, it was no surprise that twenty years ago she began volunteering to lead a writing class at an area senior center and continues today.
Food adventures continued through her life with Hispanic friends in Rawlins, WY who would drop by with freshly made corn tortillas on Sunday mornings, and who taught her a love for a new cuisine from long-held family recipes including green chili and creamy enchiladas. She married a man “who seduced me on our second date with the BBQ grill;” who did much of the cooking and wrote a food column for a boating magazine in their 40 years together. (She’s lived aboard a boat for many years.) A writing class member from Goa, India became her mentor for Indian cuisine, teaching her hands-on tips and tricks using traditional recipes and spices. Tying her love of writing and of food, she enjoys sharing her cooking adventures with Indian cuisine creating small cookbooks of recipes and memories, one of which she now offers free to twenty interested readers.