Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey [it’s vegetarian]

Goat Curry

Goat Curry at Rangoli photo by mellowfood @ Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the best meals I’ve had in a while was the dinner we had last summer at Vij’s Rangoli in Vancouver, at the very end of our honeymoon. Rangoli is the more casual sister restaurant (which also sells prepared meals to take home) of the elegant Indian restaurant Vij’s; both restaurants are owned and operated by Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. Vikram Vij also writes occasional articles for the Globe and Mail newspaper, including recipes, like this one for Boatman’s Curry.

What made our meal at Rangoli so good? We love love love Indian food, but that’s not why. It was because it was really really really good Indian food: the ingredients were fresher, the flavours were more interesting, and the combinations of dishes were satisfying and varied. One of the things I liked about the restaurant was the fact that, unlike in many Indian restaurants, you ordered a combination plate, with, for example, black chickpea pakoras, rice pilaf, and portobello mushrooms in creamy curry, or, quinoa salad, spicy beet greens and a lamb kebab, instead of ordering a number of dishes accompanied by plain rice. We still shared tastes of each other’s dishes – my husband and I were treating his aunt to dinner, which meant we sampled 9 dishes all together, I believe – but I liked having the preset combinations because a) the chef is probably better at picking combinations of flavours than I am and b) it meant that our starchy side dishes were more interesting than plain rice, and that the flavours of the pilafs, potatoes, grains, etc. could complement the other dishes.

So, you can imagine I was pretty excited to discover Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking on the new books shelf at the Madison Public Library (here’s the catalog record, FYI).

This cookbook is even better than I expected. The recipes range from dead easy to fairly uncomplicated, there are lots of interesting tidbits included about ingredients (especially spices) and life and business at the restaurant (including recommendations from the kitchen staff, who seem to be mainly, if not entirely, Punjabi immigrants to Canada who come from smaller villages than Vikram and Meeru, and therefore have different ideas about food). The couple has two daughters, who also appear in the book, along with some of their favourite dishes, including a really yummy-looking butter-chicken oven-fried schnitzel with dipping sauce. I also really enjoyed reading about Vikram and Meeru’s life at home, which appears to be more family-oriented and relaxed than the average restaurant power couple’s. The book opens with a quite evocative description of how Vikram and Meeru’s decision to turn their study/playroom nto a proper dining room had a powerful affect on their approach to both family meals and entertaining. But, I have a bone to pick here: there’s no proper photo of the dining room in question!

But that’s a small quibble, really, and it just serves to show how readable and friendly this book is. I think the strongest aspect of the book is the balance it strikes between teaching you how to make straightforward Indian specialties, and introducing you to new ideas, techniques, and ingredients. The result is food that is “Indianish,” while taking advantage of the excellent ingredients (especially seafood and produce), that is available locally in Vancouver. We’ve joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm-share for the summer, so our vegetable supply these days is quite varied; Vikram and Meeru also rely on a CSA to supply some of the produce for their restaurants, and the cookbook includes recipes to help you use up seasonal supplies like beet greens, celeriac/celery root, and less-than-perfect apples. It’s also really helpful that each recipe includes a “Serve With” suggestion that will help you to make good combinations like they serve at Rangoli.

Madhur Jaffrey in her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, Vikram and Meeru also suggest that you use a pressure cooker for some of their recipes, particularly meat curries made with tougher cuts like goat. We don’t have a pressure cooker, and we eat vegetarian at home, so I’m unlikely to try out this suggestion, but I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea of cooking dried chickpeas in a matter of minutes rather than hours! If anyone has used a pressure cooker to cook pulses or curry, please let me know in the comments! My parents did often use theirs to cook beets (another time-consuming vegetable to cook), and to make beef stew, which is not far from curry as cooking methods go.

These are the recipes from this book I want to try:

roasted eggplant raita
beet greens sauteed in ginger, lemon and cumin
cuuried deviled eggs
quinoa salad with lentil sprouts
portobello mushrooms with red bell peppers and creamy curry
rapini and shitake mushroom curry
black chickpea pakoras
eggplant and navy beans in kalonji and tamarind curry

I’ll definitely keep you posted on the results!