Ask most kids who've left the family house what pulls them home again and again, and as often as not it's the washing machine and dryer.
That's not the draw at Rita and Jatinder "Jeet" Kumar's house in Potomac. For their grown children, Anjali and Gita, it's the food. The tandoori chicken. The meat and vegetable curries. The Indian sweets. But most of all, it's the summer barbecues.
"Food is the fulcrum for getting the kids back home," says their father. "They come to help their mom cook."
Not that Rita Kumar needs help with dinner on an ordinary night, when she always prepares a complete meal--a protein, green vegetable, salad and yogurt dish--flavored with the spices, garlic, onions and ginger of the Punjab region of North India.
"I don't like anything else," says her husband.
But weekend barbecues are even more elaborate. That's when family and friends turn up. Their older daughter, Anjali, comes over to help make marinades, or devein the shrimp or clean and trim meat for the kebabs that will soak in the mostly yogurt-based marinades. Their younger daughter, Gita, makes salads and helps entertain guests. And outside on their patio, Jeet Kumar presides over a gas grill. "When it comes time for actual grilling, it's his show, which is not an easy thing to do," says Anjali Kumar.
One Saturday night recently, the family pulled together a typical weekend meal: from the grill, tandoori-style chicken, beef kebabs, vegetables, shrimp scampi with fresh lime and corn and potatoes, as well as a coriander and mint chutney for the chicken, green salad, fruit salad and for dessert, homemade Indian sweets.
"I can use everybody's help," says Rita Kumar.
Now a biologist at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Pesticide Programs, Rita Kumar didn't even know how to cook until after she married and left home and the Indian subcontinent for Winnipeg in Canada. She learned fast. "My mom used to send me recipes," she says. "And you pick it up pretty quickly once you get the feel of what spice does as a flavor."
Soon Indian students longing for home cooking were making weekend pilgrimages to the young couple's kitchen.
Anjali Kumar didn't learn to cook while she was growing up either. A lawyer, she learned survival cooking in college, found that she liked it and went on to master a repertoire of both American and Indian dishes. She cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner for her family before she worked up the courage to participate in family barbecues.
"It's always tough to make something for your family, especially when it's something they know backward and forward," she says. "And it all seemed pretty complicated to me. Roast turkey seemed easier to do. . . . But like anything in life, the more you do, the better you get at it, and I worked my way through the mistakes. I really enjoyed it." She must have caught on quickly, because her parents credit her as the impetus behind maintaining the summer barbecues. "Anjali was the first to move out of the house," says her mother. "So when she came home, we did them."
They didn't barbecue food that often until 1988 when they bought their current home and received a gas grill as a housewarming present. An addition to the house gave them a patio and the space to grill. (Jeet Kumar is an architect working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and also manages a nonprofit organization that sponsors local and visiting Indian artists.) Both daughters were at home then, and grilling became a weekend pattern. From the beginning, Jeet Kumar was in charge of the grilling. "No one wanted to stand near the heat and fire," he says, "but I always enjoyed it."
The family's been taking advantage of that ever since.
And Anjali Kumar is completely at home with the process. "I really enjoy tandoori," she says. "It tastes great; I wanted to learn to make something I enjoy eating, and it's actually not all that hard. Mom buys the spices whole from Indian supermarkets and grinds them herself."
Though they change the menu every week, these days they're eating more seafood and less red meat. And they've probably eaten more chicken than anything else over the years. "You can buy it boneless, bring it home, soak it and put it on the fire," says Jeet Kumar. "With fish, you have to be more delicate."
Boneless chicken aside, thanks to the convenience products of modern America, the whole process may be a little easier. Jeet Kumar likes to line the top of the grill with aluminum foil so that the marinades don't drip away into the fire. His wife often marinates vegetables in bottled Italian salad dressing with extra garlic and garam masala before they're grilled. She's even made a successful tandoori marinade using barbecue sauce--an Americanization, she says, but by no means a shortcut. (Inside the house, she's updated some of her techniques too. If she's sauteing vegetables, she likes to microwave them first so they won't absorb excess fat. And she chops garlic and ginger in bulk and freezes them in spoon-size pieces in plastic wrap to use in her curries.)
These days, the family has settled into a comfortable routine: Anjali and her father do the shopping, before she helps her mother with preparations for the meal. Jeet Kumar helps chop vegetables too. And Gita and her new husband, Matthew Zoks?
"They make the martinis," says Rita Kumar. "Our barbecues are a real family operation."
Tangy Tandoori Chicken
(3 to 4 servings)
This recipe is Rita Kumar's creative twist on the tried and true yogurt marinade that is used for traditional tandoori chicken. The result is a slightly spicy-sweet version.
Serve the chicken with green cilantro chutney (recipe follows) as an appetizer or with the chutney and the Indian bread naan as part of the main course.
1/3 cup barbecue sauce
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons nonfat yogurt
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
2 hot green chilies, crushed
1 teaspoon garam masala*
Salt to taste
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch cubes
In a glass bowl, mix together the barbecue sauce, lime juice, sour cream, yogurt, ginger, garlic, chilies, garam masala, salt and red pepper to taste. Add the chicken to the marinade, cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling. If desired, place the chicken cubes on skewers.
Preheat the grill on medium heat. If using skewers, place the chicken directly on the grill. Otherwise place a sheet of aluminum foil on the grill. Place the cubes on the sheet. Brush the chicken occasionally with the remaining marinade. Grill until cooked through.
* Note: Garam masala, a mixture of spices commonly used in the preparation of Indian food, is available in Asian markets and many co-ops and specialty stores.
Per serving (based on 4): 204 calories, 40 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 224 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Green Cilantro Chutney
(Makes 2 cups)
This chutney is a spicy accompaniment to grilled meats, such as chicken and beef kebabs. Every batch will taste different depending upon the heat and flavor of each hot green chili. So taste it before you pile it on.
1 bunch fresh cilantro, tough stems removed 1/3 cup mint leaves, tough stems removed
5 hot green chilies
1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, chopped 3/4-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced 1/3 cup lemon juice
Salt to taste
Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process at medium speed until the chutney has a smooth consistency, about 5 minutes. You may need to add more lemon juice and cilantro if the chilies are too hot.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 5 calories, trace protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 16 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Red Potatoes With Dill
(3 to 4 servings)
Rita Kumar used to bake these potatoes in the oven until she discovered that grilling them added a smoky flavor and was an easy way to cook an entire meal on the grill. The potatoes are mildly spiced and "cool" the palate after the spicy chicken and chutney.
10 to 12 small red potatoes
1 to 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature 1/2 bunch fresh dill, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash the potatoes and pat them dry. Cut them into thick slices but do not peel.
Generously coat the bottom of a shallow metal baking sheet or roasting pan with butter.
Toss the sliced potatoes with the dill and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the potatoes to the prepared pan and grill on the top rack until the potatoes are cooked through, about 10 minutes. The potatoes cook quickly: watch carefully to make sure they don't burn, and you may need to cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil if the potatoes begin to appear dry and overcooked.
Per serving (based on 4): 142 calories, 3 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 69 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
CAPTION: Rita Kumar, right, and her daughter Anjali work together to make the accompaniments to their family weekend barbecues.
CAPTION: Rain drove the Kumar family inside on this recent weekend but didn't dampen their spirits. From left: son-in-law Matthew Zoks, daughter Gita, Jeet Kumar, daughter Anjail and, standing, Rita Kumar.