Friday, July 10, 2009

Aloo Mutter and the Six Million Dollar Man

The Six Million Dollar Man was a favorite television show when I was growing up. Colonel Steve Austin’s line after using brute strength to break free of chains was perhaps the best in all of 70’s television. An astonished onlooker asks how he managed to break chains without tools. His response? “Vitamins.” That got some mileage on the playgrounds of St. Peter Minnesota.

Not long ago, I found that I was gaining some weight, largely due to ingesting large quantities of Cheetos and nearly any other salty, fatty food that came within grabbing distance. I discovered my salt cravings were a common response to vitamin deficiency. I’ve been taking my vitamins lately, and the salt cravings have become less intense. Unfortunately, no bionic abilities have been forthcoming. And I still like Cheetos. And French Fries. And salty, greasy foods in general.

My appetites have recently made me a sort of widower. While I continue to live a food lifestyle that is vigorous and varied, albeit heavy on butter, salt and Cheetos, my wife has decided to lose some weight. She is a braver soul than I. This is death to a cook. Feast foods with more Weight Watcher’s points than an average NBA game are the norm in my cookbooks. Dieting cookbooks tend to be sad little productions of flavor-denuded skinless, boneless chicken, chicken, chicken with zucchini and cottage cheese doled out parsimoniously on the side. The texture of cottage cheese always kept me away.

In lieu of animal fat rich dishes, be they glorious new interpretations of pizzas heavily loaded with cheese, butter-laden sauces, and not-so-lean pork, I am trying to find my way back to a lesson I learned long ago about taste: If you can’t get it from the food itself (read: fat), reach for the spices.

Of my various cooking incarnations: Hungarian, Korean, East African, American Fry Cook; I have never reincarnated into an Indian/South Asian chef. Shedding the worn earthly clothes of the earlier me (for now) to reincarnate as a spicier, but leaner Indian-cooking me doesn’t sound too bad. I’ve worked on two dishes that I’ve greatly enjoyed when at the buffet lines of good Indian restaurants. The first, Palak Paneer, is a heavily spiced spinach and cheese dish. I have even experimented with making the rennet-free Paneer (cheese) of the Palak Paneer. The second, Aloo Mutter, is curried potatoes and peas. But it has infinite flexibility of vegetables and spices. Both of these are standard Indian Buffet items because they are simple, hold up well over time and are inexpensive. These recipes also have the advantage of not being too bad on calories.

When I first started cooking Indian food, I wound up with two types of recipes: those with five ingredients, and those with twenty. Those with twenty ingredients had twelve different spices. I would approach the end of the recipe and wonder when I was supposed to use my ancient tin of curry. I was making Curried Somethingoranother, where was the curry? Of course I had just made a curry, “curry” is not a spice itself despite that appearance in grocery stores or even on the menus of many restaurants. The recipes with five ingredients called for that ancient tin or a store bought paste. When I said earlier that these recipes were simple, there is a caveat. These curries can take a little time to assemble, but if you figure out that many go in together, you can prepare this step before you’re halfway through cooking, the potatoes are burning, and the kid has spilled milk on the counter.…

I will share my Aloo Mutter below. For the Weight Watcher’s crowd, this recipe does incorporate a small amount of fat, namely ghee – clarified butter, but a tablespoon divided by four servings shouldn't blow anyone’s plan. Enjoy, and take your vitamins!

Aloo Mutter (Curried Potatoes and Peas)

4 Medium Russet potatoes

2 Carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4” coins

1 Tablespoon Ghee or Canola oil

1 teaspoon Cumin seeds

1 teaspoon Mustard seeds

½ Chopped large Onion

1 teaspoon Salt

1 teaspoon Sugar

1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons Cumin powder

2 teaspoons Coriander powder

¼ teaspoon Garlic powder

¼ teaspoon Ginger powder

¼ teaspoon Turmeric

1 Tablespoon Lemon juice


  1. Peel and cut the potatoes into ½ inch cubes, boil 10 – 15 minutes. They should be somewhat firm when you take them out. Drain and cool.
  2. In a small bowl, prepare a mixture of the following ingredients: salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, cumin powder, coriander powder, garlic powder, ginger powder and turmeric. Set aside.
  3. In a large frying pan, heat the ghee or canola oil. Add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds.
  4. When the mustard and cumin seeds begin to pop, add the chopped onion. Sauté for 2 minutes.
  5. Add the potatoes, carrots and spice mixture. Combine well.
  6. Add the lemon juice just prior to serving.

Note on ingredients: You may consider a number of substitutions. Many recipes use waxy potatoes (red or Yukon Golds), my preference is for mealy potatoes that absorb the flavor of the spices better. Carrots are not traditional, but add a nice color and natural sweetness. Adding cauliflower is a common variant.

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