By Julie Sahni
[I’ve been an admirer of Julie Sahni since I first began cooking from her essential Classic Indian Cooking in the 80s, and I’m happy to say we’ve become friends. Ms. Sahni is the chef/owner of Julie Sahni’s Indian Cooking in New York City, and an award winning author of 10 cookbooks (Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking is also a must-have). She’ll be writing about Indian cooking periodically for mb.com – how great is that? – mb]
I love to visit Indian grocery stores in Queens, not just for spices, legumes and chutneys but for Indian vegetables. Mounds after mounds of tiny okra-like tindola squash, long and windy snake gourd chichinda, crocodile-textured karela, tiny eggplants, guar beans, and Indian kakri cucumbers are dumped on racks, bins, and baskets, not oiled and stacked like LEGOs.
My mother taught me very early on that okra’s tenderness can be gauged by simply running fingers, ever so gently, on its body. Silky smooth texture with rounded edges suggests perfect okra while hairy skins with tough ridges not so. And, the secret of freshness lies at its tip. A quick, neat break means the okra is fresh while a soft and rubbery generally points to staleness. During my recent visit to a store, I was pleasantly surprised to see new potatoes, tiny as marbles! Just glancing at them filled my heart with warmth and delicious memories of open air markets and farms in Kanpur, a city of my childhood on the banks of Ganjus, where vendors sold just-picked, super-fresh vegetables from the fertile floodplains.
At the time, I didn’t see any point in visiting markets or helping my mother with the vegetables. I knew that my mother wanted company on those visits so I volunteered, but conditionally. I would accompany her provided I got to eat streetfood like samosa and pani-puri. (That was, and still is, every Indian child’s dream.) I would follow her patiently from stall to stall, watching and helping until she was done and satisfied.
As I munched my samosa, she would tell me about the farms surrounding the town, from where the potato, peas, cilantro and chili for the samosa had come. She wanted me to understand and appreciate where our food came from. Over the years I would make innumerable visits with my mother to both markets and farms, and she would share her practical knowledge and priceless wisdom. As in cooking, simple things, handled carefully, produce extraordinary results.
During one of our visits to a family friend’s farm in Kanpur, my mother introduced me to new potatoes. To maximize flavor and minimize sugar-to-starch conversion, she insisted upon cooking them soon after harvesting; her favorite-style was pan-seared, with mustard seeds, a quick and easy preparation that celebrates the potatoes’ creamy texture and delicate flavor. I don’t know where the secret lies, whether it’s special stirring and mixing, certain spice combinations, or pan-searing, but my mother’s pan-seared potatoes always taste delicious and do magic to my soul.
Now, it’s springtime and the market is brimming with tiny new potatoes. I am ready for my fix.
Mother’s Pan-Seared New Potatoes©
Makes 6 servings
Time: about 45 minutes
These potatoes taste best when you add at least a little Indian ground red chili powder. If you can’t handle heat, then go with paprika.
1 pound new potatoes, the smalle the better
¾ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Indian ground red chili powder, hot paprika, or sweet paprika
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons oil, ghee or a combination
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
4 shallots, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1. Boil potatoes in their jackets in water to cover by at least 3 inches, until they are very soft, about 30 minutes. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, slice with the skin into wedges (if they’re really tiny, leave them whole) and put them in a bowl with the turmeric, chili and salt.
2. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet or a heavy sauté pan over high heat. Add the mustard seeds and cover the pan. When the seeds stop sputtering, remove the lid and the potato and shallot. Lower the heat to medium-high and pan-sear potato, turning often, until they are streaked brown and crusty, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with limej uice and cilantro, and serve.