In maintaining the integrity of its dishes, a restaurant cookbook can thumb its nose at the audience most eager to receive it. Put in terms a fan of Rasika will understand: Chef Vikram Sunderam has at long last published his recipe for palak chaat! It's the saucy, complex heap of crispy fried spinach that has dazzled Washington diners since the elegant Indian restaurant opened in 2005.
But how many of us will opt for obtaining deggi mirch, an Indian chile powder blend; toasting the cumin seeds; making a base chutney and two sauces; and then maintaining a pot of 400-degree oil for batch after batch?
Washington chef-turned-writer David Hagedorn kept that in mind when he signed on to co-author the new "Rasika: Flavors of India" (Ecco, Oct. 10) with restaurateur Ashok Bajaj and Sunderam. The Bombay (now Mumbai)-born executive chef has earned accolades and a coveted four stars for interpreting his cuisine with modern flair. The cookbook project took three years.
"Restaurant cookbooks can be intimidating," said Hagedorn, who writes occasionally for The Washington Post. "What I discovered was that these recipes are not all difficult. Their techniques are not difficult. Sure, you have to prep, as you would for Chinese cooking . . . . It's a lot of cutting and dicing. A different way of cooking than most American cooks know."
And, of course, he said, the co-creators were aware they were sharing a style of cooking that goes against current enthusiasm for five ingredients or fewer.
Yet, plenty of "easy" — a pixie-dust descriptor among viral recipes — exists in this 120-recipe collection. Take the Korma Sauce: The restaurant relies on its gluten-free rendition as the base for several braises. It calls for six commonplace ingredients, including a versatile and quick ginger-garlic paste. Add chicken or mushrooms and artichokes, and the sauce morphs. Hagedorn had to prepare loads of the paste, and it has changed the way he cooks non-Indian food every day, he said. The ice cube trays filled with it in his freezer prove the point.
The same goes for fresh tamarind, an ingredient he did not use at home before working on the book. It can provide the right sour note to balance a vinaigrette, a stew or a soup — instead of the usual acidic components. So it, too, earned a place in his cold storage, as it has in an increasing number of grocery produce departments.
"Rasika's" Rice Vermicelli With Dill and Green Chiles won't send you to a special market. The recipe takes about 10 minutes to throw together and has become Hagedorn's favorite new side dish. "Every time I tested it, I'd eat it for the next three days," he said — sometimes with sizzled curry leaves. "It has become an epiphany food for me." And the restaurant's signature Date and Toffee Puddings are baked in a regular muffin pan and freezable — accessible for even a beginner home cook.
The more comfortable one becomes with such gateway recipes, the more appealing some of Rasika's dishes with more demanding ingredients and exacting directions might turn out to be. Hagedorn found a certain logic to them.
"As much as I tried to steer Vikram into letting me add everything at once, the answer was usually no," he said. When spices and sauces are allowed to develop their individual flavors in a time-release fashion, the benefits of a layered approach become apparent. Rasika's palak chaat is a perfect example, and it's now within a home cook's reach.
Hagedorn will join Wednesday's Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Recipes from the Recipe Finder:
MAKE AHEAD: The vermicelli can be refrigerated a day in advance; cover and reheat in the microwave.
Adapted from "Rasika: Flavors of India," by Ashok Bajaj and Vikram Sunderam, with David Hagedorn (Ecco, October 2017).
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli noodles
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
½ teaspoon minced green Thai chile pepper (seeded)
1 teaspoon peeled minced fresh ginger root
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat, then stir in the rice vermicelli, making sure it's all submerged. Let sit for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Then drain, return them to the pan and cover.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the butter sizzles, reduce the heat to medium-low; add the green Thai chile pepper, ginger, turmeric and salt, stirring to incorporate. Cook for 30 seconds, then stir in the cooked vermicelli. Turn off the heat, then fold in dill.
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