Turmeric (Recipe: saag aloo/potatoes with spiced spinach)
In days of old, when nights were cold, I used to spend a lot of time knitting.
Yarn shopping replaced clothes shopping as my favorite activity. I bought yarn wherever I found something out of the ordinary -- at a stall in Covent Garden, at a craft fair in New Zealand with Cousin Martin, at hidden-away sales of Uruguayan yarn in Manhattan --and eventually I took up spinning and dyeing my own yarn.
And that's why, long before I ever used turmeric in my cooking, I had some in my pantry. In the world of natural dyeing, turmeric turns everything it touches a golden yellow color; in cooking, it does the same thing.
One of the least expensive spices, turmeric really does stain everything it touches; for both reasons, it's a popular food coloring for sliced "American cheese", margarine, and ballpark mustard.
More than 90 percent of the world supply of turmeric, a member of the ginger family, comes from India; it's also produced in China, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. The rhizomes are sold fresh (occasionally you can find fresh turmeric in Asian grocery stores) or sun dried, peeled and ground, which is how you buy it in most markets.
The color of turmeric varies from gold to yellow, depending on the variety -- not the quality -- of the rhizome. During cooking, all turmeric will darken, almost to black. It has a strong ginger-like taste, more bitter than saffron. Never buy ground saffron unless from a reputable vendor, or what you get might be saffron "cut" with turmeric; the color will be right, but the taste definitely will be wrong.
Turmeric's healing properties, as an anti-inflammatory and a treatment for digestive disorders, liver problems, wounds, and conjunctivitis, are well known to Ayurvedic and Chinese healers.
Cooks know this spice as a fundamental component of curry powder, garam masala, and ras el hanout, and a key ingredient in masala turmeric squid with coconut cream, saffron turmeric cake, Jamaican veggie patties, winter squash soup, Vietnamese turmeric crepes (banh xeo), or roasted eggplant with a yogurt turmeric sauce.
It's been twenty years or more since I spun and dyed a skein of yarn, but turmeric and margarine and ballpark mustard have been in my pantry ever since.
Saag aloo (potatoes with spiced spinach)
This dish was the perfect accompaniment to salmon tikka, but it's substantial enough to stand on its own as a vegetarian main course. I've cut the amount of oil in the original recipe way down, and used sugar substitute to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. Loosely adapted from Indian: A Culinary Journey of Discovery, by Mridula Baljekar, this recipe serves 4; can be doubled.
12 oz Yukon Gold or other new potatoes
9 oz fresh baby spinach leaves
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, cut in half and finely sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced (for a less spicy dish, remove seeds and ribs before chopping)
2 tsp mashed garlic*
2 tsp mashed ginger*
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground red chile pepper or red pepper flakes (mild or hot, to taste)
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
7 oz canned chopped tomatoes
1/2 tsp sugar or sugar substitute (I used Splenda)
1 tsp salt, or to taste
*To mash garlic and ginger, either use the side of your knife at a 20-degree angle to the cutting board, and scrape until the garlic or ginger break down, or place in a mini food processor with a few teaspoons of olive oil, and grind to a paste. You can use store-bought garlic or ginger puree, too.
Trim potatoes of any blemishes, and place in a pot of cold water. Bring to the boil, and cook for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Drain, then soak in a bowl of cold water for up to 30 minutes to stop the cooking action. When the potatoes are cool, peel them if you wish (I don't), then cut into bite-size chunks.
WHILE THE POTATOES ARE COOLING, blanch the spinach in a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain. Transfer to a food processor and blend to a puree. Set aside.
In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking 2-3 minutes more, until the onions are browned. Add the jalapeño, garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Then add the coriander, cumin, chile powder and turmeric, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, and the sugar, and increase heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, until the tomatoes have reached a paste-like consistency.
Add the potatoes, spinach and salt, and cook for 2-3 minutes until the whole mixture is well combined. Serve hot.
Thanks to my friend Bob for assisting with the photos for this post.