Indian inspirations to enliven a weeknight

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2009

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When it comes to ethnic cookbooks, authors either tend to go authentic, delving into the culture and history of a region and ingredients you can’t often obtain, or they start from a basic flavor premise and then take a flying leap into modernity, with streamlined techniques and mix-and-match ingredients.

“Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen,’’ by Monica Bhide, a food writer and cooking teacher, falls solidly in the second category. Although these flavorful, brisk recipes reference Bhide’s cosmopolitan pilgrimage from New Delhi to Bahrain to Washington, they’re also clearly the work of a mom cooking on weeknights. If the recipes are occasionally uneven, they are rarely boring.

Wonton wrappers make a remarkably easy and stylish casing for a sweet green pea filling for chili pea puffs, which are fine on their own and downright addictive with a little mint chutney. Cilantro-lemon corn pops (that’s popcorn) is the kind of snack that reduces you to a gobbling, mouth-stuffing fool, with its combination of tart, salty, and crunchy - at least till the lemon juice soaks everything.

Eggplant and tomatoes with cilantro make a sort of Indian ratatouille, with potatoes instead of zucchini and peppers, and a penetrating ginger-garlic base. Dry shredded coconut and the green heat of a serrano chili lend sweetness and fire to garlic-smashed potatoes, which I now prefer to regular mashed. Bhide’s Brussels sprouts, leeks, and curry leaves is a welcome alternate preparation for an unloved vegetable (beware a cooking time longer than optimal), though the leeks and curry leaves inevitably outshine the sprouts.

Chicken with mint and ginger rub combines dried mint, bitter ajowan seeds, ginger, and other spices into a quick but potent paste. After a short marinade and a fast roasting, the chicken picks up a surprising amount of character, though it remains rather dry.

The three seafood preparations I tried rocked the house. Chili squid is great weeknight food; heat, sourness, and depth come from red onions, curry leaves, and curry powder, and it’s ready in a flash. (Be sure to dry the squid thoroughly or you’ll have to fish them out and boil down the liquid they release so they don’t overcook.) Nearly as fast and just as good is tamarind-glazed honey shrimp, a godsend for those who like their shrimp sweet and sticky. (Tamarind chutney works fine if you can’t find tamarind-date chutney.) Tilapia curry with roast spices is a surprise; firm chunks of fish melt into a warmly spiced base of reduced coconut milk.

Drinks and desserts are a mixed bag. I tried two rum drinks: “Emerald-Ade,’’ made with green mangos, came out “Yellow-Ade’’ (mangos too ripe?), with a fruity, daiquiri-like sweetness. Pomegranate delight has an irresistible deep-dyed rose tint and is tart like cranberry, but shallower and more refreshing on the tongue.

My friend Mary made the saffron-cardamom macaroons, which came out sunny yellow, strongly scented, and very sweet. When I made them, they were drier, whiter, and less sweet. Both were good. I was rightly skeptical of the one-fourth cup of rice called for in rice pudding and mango parfait, which falls far short of serving “4 to 6.’’ But that’s also partly because it’s quite delicious.

I think of Indian cooking as summer food, when there’s time to track down curry leaves and chickpea flour at your local Asian grocers, and when the fresh heat of green chilies raises a light sweat on your forehead, turning a warm breeze cool. But with dishes like these, my Indian summer may just have to last all year.

MODERN SPICE: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen By Monica Bhide

Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $25