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Published June 19, 2012, 11:30 PM

Quick curries and other Indian adventures: Book offers tips for cooking diverse cuisine

There’s something so tantalizing about Indian food: the slow-simmered sauces, dazzling colors and aromatic spices. But the first time you cook a curry at home, chances are you’ll be making 12 trips to a specialty market before cooking all day – or so we thought, until Ruta Kahate showed us the way.

By: Jackie Burrell, San Jose Mercury News, INFORUM

There’s something so tantalizing about Indian food: the slow-simmered sauces, dazzling colors and aromatic spices. But the first time you cook a curry at home, chances are you’ll be making 12 trips to a specialty market before cooking all day – or so we thought, until Ruta Kahate showed us the way.

Born in Maharashtra, India, this cooking instructor, cookbook author and restaurateur leads a globetrotter’s life. Kahate came to California nearly 20 years ago with dreams of going to aviation school and becoming the first female pilot for India’s international airline. But she soon found herself on a completely different path. These days, the 43-year-old writer splits her time between the Bay Area and Goa in India, leading culinary tours, developing recipes and teaching cooking classes – and raising two young daughters with her husband. And there’s no time in her life for all-day food prep or long, luxurious dinners.

So it’s no wonder that her latest cookbook is dubbed “Quick-Fix Indian” (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 208 pages), nor that it’s filled with shortcuts and tricks for infusing plenty of flavor in very little time. Naturally, we had questions.

Q: What inspired “Quick-Fix Indian”?

A: I had been plotting a very different book, more of a travelogue, but to be perfectly honest, my agent called and said, do you want to write this? You know, this is exactly how I cook these days, this crazy life I lead. I want to do everything possible in this one lifetime, but I’m broadsided – you can’t quite do everything you did when you have little ones.

Q: The emphasis here is on shortcuts and speedy meal prep, which is certainly reflected in your chapter titles – Brisk Breakfasts, Snappy Staples, Rapid Relishes. What prompted all that amusing alliteration?

A: I was sitting on a beach, thinking hmm, I’m supposed to work. (Laughs) I was sipping rum and Coke and then, chapters!

Q: What are your family’s favorite dishes from the book?

A: The Andhra chicken curry, and I love the green pepper potato saute. Green peppers are so underutilized, and a lot of grown-ups I know don’t like green pepper.

Q: That’s so wrong.

A: Utterly! Shall we do a menu? The Andhra curry, the green pepper saute, pilaf, black pepper shrimp with curry leaves – it’s one of my latest hot favorites – pickled cucumber and carrot salad.

Green Pepper-Potato Saute

Serves 4

2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

¼ teaspoon cumin seeds

¼ teaspoon turmeric

8 ounces green bell peppers, cut in 1-inch strips

8 ounces medium Yukon Gold or white potatoes, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch strips

¼ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon ground coriander

Salt

Heat oil in a large wok over high heat. When oil just begins to smoke, add cumin seeds and cover. When sputtering stops, stir in the turmeric. Quickly toss in the bell peppers and potatoes. Toss well, then add the cayenne, coriander and salt. Toss again, cover and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are cooked through.

– Ruta Kahate, “Quick-Fix Indian” (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 208 pages)

Andhra Chicken Curry

Serves 4-6

2 pounds chicken thighs and legs, skinned

Salt

1½ tablespoons coriander seeds

½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1½ teaspoons cumin seeds

4 whole black peppercorns

¼ cup canola or peanut oil

1½ teaspoons garlic paste (see recipe)

15 fresh curry leaves (available at Indian markets)

1 teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste

2 cups brown onions (see recipe)

1 cup water

½ cup canned coconut milk, whisked well

1. Dry chicken. Sprinkle all over with salt and set aside.

2. Place coriander, fenugreek, cumin and peppercorns in a spice grinder and pulse until finely ground.

3. Heat oil in a large wok or pan over medium-high heat. Saute garlic, curry leaves, turmeric, cayenne and ground spices, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 3 minutes.

4. Add chicken. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until chicken is browned. Mix in brown onions and water; bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer, uncovered, until chicken is cooked, about 10 minutes. Slowly stir in the coconut milk and simmer 5 minutes more.

Garlic Paste

Makes ½ cup

4 ounces garlic cloves, peeled

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 tablespoons water

Place garlic in a blender. With motor running, add the oil, then water. Blend to a smooth paste, scraping down the sides often. Transfer to a clean glass jar, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Brown Onions

Makes 2 cups

2 medium yellow onions

½ cup canola oil

1. Halve each onion from stem to tip, then thinly slice into half-moons. Separate into individual slices.

2. In the largest skillet you own, heat the oil on high until it starts rippling.

3. Add onions and stir to coat. Spread out evenly in a thin layer. Leave skillet on high heat and wait. Do not keep stirring! Slices on the periphery will brown first; stir them into the center and spread everything in a thin layer. Repeat until all the onion slices begin to color.

4. Set heat to medium-low and let them cook, stirring only occasionally and keeping them spread out evenly.

5. When evenly browned and crisp, drain on paper towels. They will crisp further as they cool. Store in an airtight glass bottle in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

– Ruta Kahate, “Quick-Fix Indian” (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 208 pages)

Pickled Cucumber and Carrot Salad

Serves 4

2 medium English cucumbers, peeled

2 medium carrots, peeled

2 medium green Serrano chiles, seeded

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Salt

¼ teaspoon sugar

1. With a mandoline, slice cucumbers and carrots into very thin rounds. Slice chiles into thin rounds with a knife.

2. Mix all the ingredients together, using your fingers to distribute dressing evenly. Chill 10 minutes, then serve.

– Ruta Kahate, “Quick-Fix Indian” (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 208 pages)

Black Pepper Shrimp with Curry Leaves

Serves 4

6 tablespoons canola oil

20 fresh curry leaves (available at Indian markets)

1 pound large tiger shrimp, peeled and deveined

½ teaspoon freshly ground, coarse black pepper

Salt

Heat the oil in a work or large skillet over high heat. Toss in curry leaves and back away – they’ll sputter wildly and turn crisp. Add shrimp and toss. Add pepper and salt and continue tossing over high heat until the shrimp are pink and cooked through, 3-4 minutes. Serve warm.

– Ruta Kahate, “Quick-Fix Indian” (Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 208 pages)

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