Back when we first received amaranth in our CSA box, I did some recipe research about the vegetable. Once I learned that it was popular in Indian dishes, I realized I should check and see what Raghavan Iyer would suggest.
Raghavan Iyer is a local Indian chef who has written a number of excellent cookbooks on Indian cooking. He also teaches cooking classes at local kitchen stores Kitchen Window and Cooks of Crocus Hill, and will be opening a new upscale Indian restaurant, OM, in downtown Minneapolis in the very near future.
I had a chance to cook with Raghavan personally a couple of years ago. For our annual holiday party, my office hires a chef to come in and do a hands-on cooking experience with us; we choose a different cuisine each year. In 2006, it was Indian.
Raghavan was an excellent cooking instructor from whom we learned a lot, and just an all-around good guy. It was fascinating to learn more about the Indian approach to spices in particular – cooking with whole spices and grinding your own.
When I emailed Raghavan for his recommendation of what to do with amaranth, he suggested a recipe from his most recent cookbook, 660 Curries. It looked pretty simple, but I got hung up on one ingredient it called for – asafoetida.
I’m not at all familiar with asafoetida. Raghavan told me that asafoetida could be found at co-ops, but Mississippi Market doesn’t carry it. I ended up finding it at an Indian grocery on Central Ave. in northeast Minneapolis. (I did end up seeing it at the Wedge co-op this past weekend after the fact).
The Indian lady working the register at Bombay Grocery wrinkled her nose at the mention of this spice, saying her mother used it a lot in her home cooking and it was really smelly. However, it’s supposed to help with gas and bloating.
Wikipedia corroborates these points and elaborates further, offering some interesting facts about asafoetida.
Asafoetida is also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, asant, food of the gods.
Asafoetida has a pungent, unpleasant smell when raw, but in cooked dishes, it delivers a smooth flavor, reminiscent of leeks.
This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment and in pickles. Its odor, when uncooked, is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby. However, its odour and flavor become much milder and more pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.
* In the Jammu region, in the northernmost state in India, Asafoetida is used as a medicine for flatulence and constipation by 60% of locals. In India, it is used especially by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism and Vaishnavism, who do not eat onions or garlic. It is used in many vegetarian and lentil dishes to both add flavor and aroma and reduce flatulence.
The description gets a little weirder at this point:
* Bait – John C Duval reported in 1936 that the odor of asafoetida is attractive to the wolf, a matter of common knowledge, he says, along the Texas/Mexico border. It is also used as one of several possible scent baits, most notably for catfish and pike.
* Avoiding spirits – In Jamaica, asafoetida is traditionally applied to a baby’s anterior fontanel (Jamaican patois “mole”) in order to prevent spirits (Jamaican patois “duppies”) from entering the baby through the fontanel. In the African-American Hoodoo tradition, asafoetida is used in magic spells as it is believed to have the power to curse. In Ceremonial Magick especially from The Key of Solomon the King, it is used to protect the magus from daemonic forces and to evoke the same and bind them.
With my full jar of asafoetida on hand, I’m certain that nobody is going to mess with me, because either the stench will keep them away, or the knowledge that I could break out some voodoo on their sorry ass.
On the other hand, maybe we’ll start having wolf sightings in Northeast Minneapolis….
OK, back to the cooking.
Because we had only one bunch of amaranth (it weighed about 5 oz.), I halved the recipe, and made a couple of other Indian-inspired dishes to accompany the curry – Spicy Green Beans from the Vegetarian Perspective blog, and the Grilled Eggplant Salad with Yogurt that appeared in Mark Bittman’s NY Times column last week. We also served basmati rice and spicy pappadums on the side.
In making this menu, I used the amaranth, onions, green beans and eggplant from our Harmony Valley Farm CSA box this past week. Not a bad way to take out a big chunk of the CSA box in one go.
Here’s the full recipe for the amaranth dish. If you only have one bunch of amaranth like I did, I’d recommend bulking up the recipe with other greens such as spinach.
If you can’t find amaranth at your market – or more likely, at an Asian grocery store –spinach, collard, mustard (slightly more bitter), and kale are all great stand-ins.
1 pound fresh red amaranth leaves, well rinsed, tough stems discarded
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1/4 teaspoon ground asafetida
1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon white granulated sugar
Stack a dozen or so of the amaranth leaves on top of one another, and cut them into thin strips. Repeat with the remaining bunch.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the skillet, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn), about 30 seconds. Remove the skillet from the heat and sprinkle in the cumin seeds, turmeric, cayenne, and asafetida, which will instantly sizzle and smell nutty (without burning).
Grab a handful of the amaranth strips and stir them into the spiced oil. Allow them to wilt before you add another handful. Once all the leaves have been added and wilted, stir in 1 cup water and the peanuts, salt, and sugar.
Bring the curry to a boil. Then lower the heat to medium, cover the skillet, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are tender and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. (The sauce will be on the thinner end of the spectrum; so, if you wish to shift it toward the thicker, remove the cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to boil off some more of the broth-like liquid, about 5 minutes.) Serve.
Some more cooking notes about this menu:
The amaranth dish had nice flavor, I just wish we had more of it. The leaves cook down a lot and so next time we make this, we’ll round it out with additional greens.
I liked the green beans, but maybe used too many peppers and mustard seeds in it (my husband disagreed and liked the level of spiciness). The Wedge co-op didn’t have any Thai chiles, and so we used more serranos in its place. We were both coughing and sneezing from the extremely spicy aromas emanating from the kitchen during cooking.
The eggplant salad was so-so for me – the grilled, peeled eggplant didn’t look very appealing (it was grey and looked a little like herring) so I was pre-disposed not to like it. The minted yogurt was a nice counter-point to the spicy green beans, though. Next time I’ll probably stick to an even simpler eggplant preparation, just grilling it in slices like Kate in the Kitchen suggested.
One final note – I can verify that asafoetida is truly a stink bomb of a spice. We initially stored it in our spices cupboard but then after being driven crazy by the smell, we decided to place it in a plastic bag and put it out into our porch.
Watch out for the wolf howls in Nordeast, people….