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Awake at the Whisk: The Great Indian Buffet

Saturday, March 14, 2009


The Great Indian Buffet

Cardamom, cumin, and curry combined this weekend as the hubby and I hosted an Indian buffet for nine dinner guests. Read on to learn how you can host your own spicy evening. I’m including my menu, the cookbooks I consulted, recipes, and a party host’s must-have: my trusty timeline.

· Fresh, oven grilled garlic naan
· Spicy baked samosas
· Garden cilantro and coconut chutney
· Traditional Toovar dal (creamy lentil dish with spicy cumin and garlic)
· Amber's chana masala (eggplant and red bell pepper dish with spiced tomato and chickpeas)
· Traditional sambar (yellow curry with green beans, potatoes, ginger, and fresh spices)
· Cilantro cashew long grain rice
· Dessert: orange slices picked from our tree served with honey, coconut, almond slivers, and garden mint (a refreshing shower for the mouth after a spicy meal)
· Beverages: an assortment of Indian beers, provided by my very kind neighbors

The above items are also listed in the order they were made. I started on Friday evening around 6:00 P.M., cooking until almost 11:00 P.M. I could have finished sooner, but due to a glitch in the instructions for my samosas, they took painfully longer than they should have. Yet, something always goes unexpectedly wrong in the kitchen, so I have learned to build in extra time.


In addition to my own creations, my Indian buffet recipes came from two trusted cookbooks:

1. Indian Vegetarian Cooking from an American Kitchen by Vasantha Prasad
2. Regina’s International Vegetarian Favorites by Regina Campbell

Amber’s Chana Masala
1 large eggplant, cubed, salted, and set in a colander to drain for 30 minutes (then rinsed)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 bulb garlic, minced
2 tsp avocado oil
1 Tbsp paprika
1 Tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1 Tbsp garam masala
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ginger
2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 32-oz jar diced tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
1 12-oz can chickpeas

Heat a large wok. Add the oil, and then the eggplant. Cook on medium-high heat until the eggplant begins to soften, about 6 minutes. Add the onions and red bell pepper. Cook until onions begin to turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes more. Now add the spices and cook for about a minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and chickpeas. Cook just until heated and serve. This dish is excellent reheated for leftovers.

Orange Slices with Honey, Mint & Almonds
1 orange, peeled and sectioned
1 Tbsp slivered almonds
1 Tbsp flaked, unsweetened coconut
2 tsp honey
2 tsp finely chopped, fresh mint
4 mint leaves, whole—for garnish

Lay about 4-5 orange sections on a glass plate. Drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with almonds, coconut, and chopped mint. Garnish with two extra mint leaves.

Timeline for 7:00 P.M. Dinner on Saturday Night
Two weeks ahead:
· Spend a few hours flipping through cookbooks and reading recipes.
· Ask yourself some critical questions for each recipe that peaks your interest:
o Do you know where to purchase the required ingredients?
o Will you have to hunt something down, such as curry leaves?
o Do you need any special equipment?
o Do you have a well-rounded menu (appetizer, entrees, sides, a wide flavor variety, dessert, beverages)?
o Will you have to practice recipes in advance, or have you made these items before?

One week ahead:
· Finalize your menu and bookmark all the recipes you’ll be using.
· Create a grocery list, cross-reference with the items in your cupboards.
· Create a timeline, starting from the moment guests arrive, working backward to determine how long each item will take. You may need to tweak your original menu. Be sure to include time to decorate, set the table, and do any necessary cleaning.
· If you are asking guests to share in the effort, tell them what item you would like them to bring.

Thursday night:
· Send a reminder email to your guests. I like to include my menu as inspiration.
· Buy groceries based on the list you made last week.
· Avoid buying “extras” that look fun (dips, spreads, crackers—if they aren’t on the menu, you probably don’t need them). This will keep your budget in check, and keep you from veering off track from your timeline.
· Do, however, purchase extra items such as onions or garlic, in case you need more than you planned, or in case you cut one open and it is spoiled.

Friday night:
· If you have the day off, start early so you can get to bed at an early hour. If you work all day, like me, you’ll have to get started as soon as you come home.
· Head to garden while it’s still light outside and pick any items you’ll be cooking with tonight.
· Make naan dough—this tastes best when left to rise for 12 hours or more.
· Make sambar powder and store in an air-tight container.
· Make Toovar dal and refrigerate.
· Make samosa filling and refrigerate.
· Make coconut mint-chutney.
· Chill beer and other beverages.
· Clean up your kitchen as you go. Load your dishwasher and turn it on before heading to bed. If there are dishes that need to be washed by hand, do it now so they’ll be ready in the morning.

· Start early with any remaining house cleaning. If, like me, you have a spouse or friend to help out, create a to-do list for them, and begin working on your own list.
· If your list for Friday night was overly ambitious, start right after breakfast working on any remaining items from that list.
· You’ll want to keep your kitchen clean as you go, and keep running your dishwasher as it fills up. Ideally, it should be empty when company arrives so you can load the dinner dishes straight in.
· Noon: arrange your furniture, set the table, set out any serving dishes you’ll need that night.
· 2:00 P.M.: Make chana masala. I make mine in a huge wok, allow it to cool to room temperature, cover it with a lid, and place it in the fridge. This way, it’s ready to reheat before dinner. I also serve it in the wok to keep life easy.
· 3:00 P.M.: Make sambar. Like the chana masala, I cook this in a wok for storage, reheating, and serving.
· 4:00 P.M.: Make samosa dough. Roll and fill. Set on baking trays so they’re ready to pop in the oven just as guests are arrivng.
· 5:00 P.M.: Things will start to rock and roll now. Enlist the help of folks to help with any odds and ends that might have come up. Begin to roll naan dough. Place each piece between a lightly greased sheet of parchment paper and cover with a towel to keep them moist until you’re ready to cook them.
· 6:00 P.M.: Make rice. Set out any garnishes, dips, etc. for your appetizer hour.
· 6:30 P.M.: Bake samosas. Begin reheating the dal, sambar, and chana masala. Cover with a lid until they are ready to serve.
· 6:40 P.M.: Cook naan. Place in a bread basket and cover with two dish towels to keep it as warm as humanly possible. You could also save the naan and ask guests to help cook it once they arrive. If you have friends who like to cook, they might enjoy this step. Each piece of naan takes 4 minutes, so get two skillets running simultaneously if possible. I plan two small pieces of the bread per guest.
· 6:55 P.M.: Set out all buffet dishes, ensuring you have a hot pad and a serving utensil for each.
· 7:00 P.M.: Plate and serve the samosas piping hot from the oven.
· 7:30 P.M.: Invite your guests to help themselves at the buffet. If you haven’t created tent cards to describe each dish, ask folks to gather round while you provide a quick introduction to your menu.
· Once folks have clearly finished their meals, clear any dirty plates and silverware. If someone offers to help, ask them to peel oranges now for your upcoming dessert. Return to your seat and enjoy your company for another hour or so.
· Head to the kitchen to prepare dessert. I like to serve dessert on clear, glass plates so the colors and beauty truly stand out. Garnishes are pretty sprinkled across these plates. I serve dessert to my guests individually with a clean spoon.

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