Monday, February 05, 2007

Indian Griddle

One night a few years ago when I couldn't sleep and I'd repeatedly woken Margy with my sheet-shuffling rolling and tumbling, I decided to just get up and watch some 4am TV. (If television isn't the cure for insomnia, I don't know what is.) Jamie Oliver was on, and he was making tasty-looking Technicolor Indian food. One of his dishes was a pancake made with chickpea flour batter and filled with goodies like herbs, vegetables, and chile peppers. Before I finally drifted back into slumber, I took note of this clever little treat. I'm not sure what it would be called in India, if anything, but it seems related to bhaji.

Later, when I came to, I looked around for recipes for Indian pancakes, and I consulted my authority, the cooking-school wiz kid. And then -- once I finally located a reliable source of chickpea flour -- I just played around, going largely on my fuzzy memories of the Naked Chef. I thinned the flour with water and added spices and flavorings, and though some efforts were better than others, the results were usually pretty good. According to my associates, my pancakes were thicker than anything similar would be in India, but since I was experimenting, I didn't mind. And Margy loved these things. Could not get enough.

So this morning when I asked if she had any requests, she responded with two little words: Indian pancakes.

It will be done.

Not long into the process, I remembered my usual pancake pitfalls: getting distracted by other dishes, and having too much batter.

Distraction: Along with a nice chutney or two (in this case, and in most cases, a spicy cilantro-mint chutney recipe from Madhur Jaffrey and an amazing tamarind sauce from the book Mangoes & Curry Leaves), these chickpea pancakes could easily make a meal in themselves. But for some reason I insist on going further. Tonight I made a shrimp curry as the main course, and tending to it took some of my attention away from the pancakes. I need a controlled environment where I'm able to focus on just the one thing, so I can make sure I get it right. I say this every time, but writing it down might help. Next time I make only pancakes. (Well, and chutneys. But I get those out of the way first.)

Too much batter: These things (never to be confused with Those Things) are great reheated in the toaster oven. Add Margy's love of leftovers, and I know I have to make plenty. The problem comes when I set aside too much filling -- slivered onions and chilies, shredded spinach, chopped shrimp -- and then refuse to waste any, which means I have to overstuff that last batch of pancakes, which means they turn out too plump and not crisp enough. Next time I'm using one onion, one chile, four leaves of spinach, and three shrimp, and that's it.

The good news is that I can't lose. The batter is so easy to deal with and cooks up so effortlessly that even imperfect pancakes are still terrific. But, dammit, one of these days I intend to bring forth the pancakes of my, if not necessarily Jamie Oliver's, dreams.

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