Kitchen Bookshelf: Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals
Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters. Includes recipes to please all tastes – fish, shellfish, chicken, lamb, beef, rice, lentils, vegetables, desserts…
- A great introductory cookbook – authentic and sophisticated tastes with a handful of ingredients – for anyone who want to cook Indian
- Each dish is presented with serving suggestions; Sample menus at the end for entertaining
- The cookbook was clearly written with US audience in mind, so the measures are US friendly and the ingredients are not hard to source
- The recipes are mostly northern Indian Mughlai style, and if you plan to learn more Indian cooking, you will graduate to other cookbooks in an year or two
- This is not a teaching cookbook. So no general techniques, variations and tips discussed
- There is no indication regarding what parts of the dishes can be made ahead of time
Ismail Merchant’s claim to fame: He is the Ismail Merchant of Merchant-Ivory Productions. Some of the early movies like Shakespeare Wallah from this production house are great, only partly because of eye candy Sashi Kapoor. Apparently, Merchant was a great Producer – he had a great talent for separating people from their money to fund films. Grapevine has it that movie stars signed up to work in these movies only so they could eat at Merchant’s table.
If I had to pick one recipe from his cookbook, it would be the one called Kali Mirch Murgh or Pepper Chicken. In the early days, I used to follow his version ditto. But now, while I use more or less the same ingredients, my cooking method has evolved. Here is my version inspired by the original –
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups thinly sliced onions (~1 large red onion)
- 4 black cardamom pods (can’t be substituted by small green ones) whacked once or twice
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 8-10 pieces of bone-in skinless thigh and leg meat including drumsticks, excess fat removed (~ 3 lbs)
- 2 tbsp crushed black pepper
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 tsp salt (adjust to taste)
- 4 garlic cloves (from the outermost layer), peeled and crushed
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground szechuan peppercorn (garnish)
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon (garnish)
Dry the chicken pieces with paper towel. Heat the oil in a heavy duty pot over medium high heat. When hot, add the chicken pieces, two or three at a time and brown. Set aside on paper towels to drain. Lower the heat to medium, add the onions and cook stirring frequently until onions begin to brown. At this point, if there is any excess oil, spoon it off or use a paper towel to absorb. For a smooth sauce, puree the onions and add back to the pan with cardamom pods, and cumin seeds and continue frying for another minute.
Add the browned chicken pieces back, and crushed peppercorn, salt and 1 cup of hot water. If you are using boneless pieces, use a high quality chicken broth instead of water. Let the mixture cook, covered, over medium-low heat, for 15 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking covered for 30-40 minutes on low heat stirring occasionally. This can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Store in a well sealed container. Gently reheat (add a few Tbsp of water if necessary) before serving. Just before serving, take out the crushed garlic pieces and cardamom pods, add the lemon juice, zest, freshly ground peppercorn and mix gently.
Variation: If using chicken breast meat, brine the pieces (salt, sugar, bay leaf, peppercorn) for 8-12 hours, before proceeding. This will help retain moisture. Use 1/2 cup high quality chicken broth instead of water. Add garlic together with the crushed peppercorn and broth and reduce braising time to 15 minutes only.
Some of the other recipes in this book that I go back to frequently include a potato salad called Khas Aloo, a side of corn called Challia Dahi, sauteed bell peppers called Tali Simla Mirch and a fresh cauliflower pickled called Phool Gobi ka Aachar. Even for me who has grown up in India, an introductory cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey was too complex – she asks for too many ingredients that are sometimes difficult to source. Merchant on the other hand allows one to present sophisticated food at the table without the behind the scenes kitchen confusion.