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Bathua, not bok choy
Vastly underrated Indian greens like palak, sarson and bathua work wonderfully well in gourmet cooking.
When it comes to cooking with greens, the possibilities are endless. You can throw them raw into soups and salads, you can pickle and preserve them all year round, you can roll them into roulades or steam and polish them off with a dash of seasoning. By greens we don't mean the crinkled sheets of lollo rosso, buttery iceberg, pungent arugula or pompous leaves of Chinese cabbage that greet us every time we visit the mandis. What we mean is the array of Indian green vegetables such as sarson, methi, komli, shepu and others that lend themselves equally well to gourmet cooking. There is no denying that Indian leaves get shoddy treatment in our kitchens. Since most of us have grown up eating bhaji cooked in watery gravies served alongside khichdi, bhakri and other convalescence foods, it is hard to look at them with the gastronomic eye. To help you strip them off their native garb and dress them in gourmet fashion, we bring you a guide to cooking Indian greens in a modern style. "Beginners should start off by using Indian greens to make healthy, leafy salads, " says Chef Paul Noronha from ITC Maratha, Mumbai. Since cold salads require minimal cooking, an amateur chef won't end up ruining the texture and colour of the shoots which is the first rule of cooking with any leaves. According to Noronha, Indian leaves that easily replace froufrou salad bitters are local palak, Malabar spinach or what is locally known as mayalu and water spinach or komli. He says, "Since Indian spinaches are perfectly crunchy, they can be eaten raw. They have a bitter tinge that blends beautifully with sour cheeses such as feta and haloumi, acerbic fruits and berries, nuts and tart vinaigrettes such as orange or lemon salad dressings. " The same treatment can be meted out to kothmir and pudina leaves as well. Only they have to be used in moderation to avoid leafy or minty overload. "Or pair it with sweet ingredients such as roasted apples and pears to balance out their flavours, " suggests Noronha.
For sides or appetizers, North Indian staples like sarson and bathua are ideal. Says Chef Subroto Goswami from Radisson Hotel, New Delhi: "Since mustard shoots and bathua wilt well, they can replace bok choy in Chinese stir fries. You can even serve them on the side with sea foods and meat-based roasts. " As both these ingredients sautê well with finely chopped onions and garlic, it makes them ideal for stir fries. Also their pungent flavours compliment dense meats perfectly.
Similarly, hara lasun and shepu can be put to good use by throwing them onto Mediterranean dips, Mexican bruschettas, crostinis, French tartines and clear broths instead of foreign seasonings such as cilantro, rosemary and tarragon. Popularly known by their English names - garlic chives and dill look like slender sprigs of grass and lend a herby taste to dishes.
When it comes to main course, Indian farms offer a wide range of greens that can be used to make gourmet meals. Available abundantly in Western and Northern India during the onset of winters and monsoon, ambadi (sorrel leaves) and mooli ka patta (radish leaves) have tremendous culinary uses. While traditionally they are used to make khatta bhaji and parathas respectively, experimental chefs can use them to flavour Asian soups, pureê along with nuts to make pesto or add to marinades in order to baste meats and cottage cheese.
"While ambadi's acidic-sour taste peps up broths, radish's pungent leaves add zing to dishes it is used in, " says Chef Paul Kinny from InterContinental Marine Drive, Mumbai. He adds that apart from India, both these ingredients are commonly used in many traditional European kitchens as well.
Amaranth is another leaf family that suits a gourmet set up. Two unlikely heroes are summery chavli and monsoon's tandal bhaji. While the former can be finely chopped and used to make a ragout for pastas or polenta, the latter is a hit when served with lamb. "Apart from emerald leaves, red amaranth or laal mutt makes a gorgeous pink sauce and works very well when drizzled on pastas, " says Kinny.
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