Market Cooking

Pritha Mehra

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Culinary training: Long-distance phone calls from her mother in India.

Where she teaches: Arlington and Fairfax County Adult Education, private lessons;

Amount spent at the market: $45.09.

Biggest splurge: Yo-Fresh, $6; raspberries, $4.75 per pint.

Best bargain: Pink tomatoes, $2.50 per pound. "It may sound expensive, but it's incredible quality for the price."

Tip for farmers market cooking: "Find what sings to you. The freshest ingredients always taste best."

Her menu for the day, in order of preparation: Cilantro-Mint Chutney, Chutney Rice, Vegetable Curry, Sweet Saffron Honey Yogurt With Berries, Beef-and-Pepper Kebabs, Kachoomber Salad.

Mehra's "real" job is managing business mail entry for the U.S. Postal Service. But her dream is to be the "Rachael Ray of Indian food," she says. "So many people are intimidated by Indian cooking because it uses so many spices and unfamiliar ingredients. But most of my recipes you can make in 20 minutes."

Indeed, Mehra, 45, says that most simple curries require only four spices: coriander, turmeric, cumin and red chili powder, all of which are available at grocery stores (though for economy, she prefers to buy them in Indian markets.) Her only two rules: Never buy bulk spices; they'll get stale before you can use them all. And always toast and grind spices right before cooking.

An even easier shortcut, Mehra says, is to buy panch phoran, an Indian five-spice blend that includes mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and onion seeds. You can use it in a sophisticated curry or just "heat some oil, toast the spices and add whatever vegetables you like," Mehra said. "That's it."

Mehra needed simple recipes when she arrived in Washington 25 years ago from Calcutta. "There weren't a lot of Indian restaurants. And I was a disaster in the kitchen," Mehra remembered. "I was so homesick that I called my mom every day, and she would teach me how to make things over the phone."

In Mehra's cooking classes, she uses all family recipes, which she has adapted to make the best use of locally available ingredients (such as the corn she impulsively slipped into her Vegetable Curry). "My family used to tease me about my cooking, and now look. If I can do it, anyone can."

-- Jane Black

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