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ethnic cooking shortcuts?

  • h

I'm having a baby in two weeks, and it's likely I'll be too busy for a while to do things like make my own Thai curry paste or mole sauce from scratch. I've seen lots of canned curry pastes, whole lines of Indian "simmer sauces," jars of mole and pipian, and the like, but I've never tried any of them. Does anybody recommend any favorite products from nearly any world cuisine?

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  1. Buy them, try them, doctor them up with your favorite ingredients. I sometimes find that these products, like most prepared foods, can be a bit harsh tasting and salty. That doesn't mean you can't make a good dinner out of them, just keep it in mind. For instance saute your vegetables and then just use water instead of stock or bouillon.

    I also find in my local Indian grocery stores mylar pouches of standard dishes that you can just cut open, squeeze out and microwave. I'm looking forward to using them on our next camping trip.

    Have fun with the baby.

    1 Reply
    1. re: annieb

      Mother of a 21 month old person here, and in the midst of my best cooking year ever. But last year, when he was small, I used much more premade stuff and I specialized in finding applications (meat, veg, past, rice) for sauce of the world in bottles/jars. Agree with annieb, just try and see what works. To my surprise, I turn again and again to the Soy Veh stuff (the marinade in particular) which I doctor with rooster (hot) sauce, but the real fun is in taking a walk with the baby, going to a schmancy food store where they let you try/have samples out, or just grabbing condiments/sauces and giving them a whirl. Nearly everything that isn't majorly manufactured/chemicalized is good, and you can usually fix it if not. And if it's horrible, most groceries want to know and will usually take your $ back.

      I used to balk at spending $8 on a bottle of sauce (or more) but compared to takeout or other alternatives? So worth it. When I have had more coffee I will wander to the cabinet/fridge and post brand names.

      Really, your thought to use this stuff to make your culinary life easier and still high quality is right on the money. Get sauces, an excellent and varied pasta and rice selection on hand, and then shop daily/weekly for produce and meat and you're in the money.

    2. As to the moles,pipians,etc:

      I'm not sure what's available in your area, but here in the Midwest about the only brands available widely are Rogelio Bueno and Dona Maria...I've found the former much better, and use the Mole Paste occasionally when I have leftover chicken and just want to slap something together to take for lunch the next day...I like it a little sweeter, more canela, so as mentioned by others - re-season as necessary. I would recommend NONE of the Pipians...they seem quite poor to me. The Adobo is pretty good.

      2 Replies
      1. re: sladeums

        a quick mole recipe for those times when you dont have time to grind, roast and stir for hours, but want something more that straight from the package..

        boil the chicken over medium high heat until tender- with a bay leaf, quartered onion and garlic in the water.

        take the dona maria mole and dissolve it using the water that was used to boil the chicken until dissolved. grate some mexican chocolate in..ibarra or abuelita..it has the cocoa, sugar and cinammon in it... put as much as you need to taste..

        place the cooked chicken into the mole and let it simmer for 20 minutes..enjoy with rice and tortillas

        1. re: icarus

          Have you had the Rogelio Bueno brand? If so I was wondering what your thoughts were in comparing the two (particullarly the moles)...I've had a couple Dona Maria products that I thought were ok, but then bought the pipian and thought it was just horrid, so haven't touched their stuff again.

          I'm setting up for a good cooking weekend: Chuletas de Puerca en Agridulce for dinner tomorrow - - leave out some tortillas Saturday night and make a big batch of Chilaquiles for an office breakfast fooday on Monday and also some Pasilla salsa to spice up the bland eggs other people bring!

      2. Trader Joe's is a great source for all sorts of cooking sauces, mixes, and prepared foods.

        Here are some of the TJ products we like:

        --cornbread mix
        --frozen gyozas (chicken, pork, or vegetable dumplings)
        --Annie Chun's noodle mixes
        --tamales (in the refrigerator section)
        --Indian and Thai simmer sauces
        --Pomi Marinara Sauce
        --Muffaletta olive mix
        --tart cherries (both in jars and dried)

        Look around the store -- I'm sure that there are lots more products I'm forgetting.

        Also, there are some products available at Safeway that we like:

        --Wonnie's Korean BBQ marinade (also, their spicy marinade)
        --Safeway Select American Basmati Rice Pilaf
        --Lee Kum Kee chili sauce with garlic and black bean sauce with garlic
        --Lee Kum Kee chicken marinade
        --El Pato Enchilada sauce
        --Paul Prudhomme's seasonings (you can get these in bulk online http://www.chefpaul.com/
        )--Zatarain mixes
        --Ghirardelli Brownie Mix
        --Sukhi's Indian sauces, chutneys and marinades
        --Yoshida's marinade and other sauces

        1. I got more done around the house and garden on my maternity leaves than at all times before or since...for a working woman, its a wonderful opportunity. Enjoy the time, take your very portable new baby shopping with you, you may look back wistfully to this period of life.

          The thai curry pastes in the little cans are really pretty good - if you augment the paste with some lightly sauteed onions etc. in addition to the coconut milk. and garnish with some cilantro, fried onions or garlic, etc your dish will be even better.

          1. I would recommend first visiting your local ethnic grocery stores for sauces and ingredients.

            You'll be assured of authenticity and generally prices are significantly cheaper. ie popular coconut milk found in asian grocery stores "Chaucock" brand from thailand retails for about 50 - 60 cents, retails for double or triple that in local supermarket chains.

            Another item that is a lot cheaper at these places are spices. A bag of cinnamon sticks for $2 at my local indian grocery store versus $3 - $5 for a small bottle from McCormicks.

            Some personal favourites I can think of for chinese food, "Kimlan" chinese stlye Soy Sauces, Kikkoman for japanese style Soy Sauces, mirin. "Lee Kum Kee" makes sauces for everything, "wei-chuan" for dumplings.

            Good Luck, and happy cooking

            Link: http://thestar.com.my/kuali/

            3 Replies
            1. re: SG

              I love the recipe link you posted! Maybe I have time to make beef rendang before the "happy event..."


              1. re: SG


                The 'Chaucock' brand of coconut milk is actually a cheep knock-off of the much higher quality 'Chaokah'.

                That may be where you're seeing the price difference - they look VERY similar (quite intentionally, I would assume)...maybe not.

                1. re: sladeums

                  Thanks for the clarification. 'Chaokoh' is what I intended to write about!!! Got 'Chaucock' from a picture off some on-line store and realized my mistake when I went home and checked my own stash. Label is identical only difference is the name, thought it sounded funny.

                  Knockoff coconut milk, what will they think of next!!!???

              2. I second the recommendation for Lee Kum Kee sauces; they make just about everything. Also, I like Thai Kitchen products. I just picked up small green and red curry pastes at Cost Plus, and they make a bunch of other stuff.

                1. Patak products are excellent British-made, canned Indian sauces--Korma and Madras are my favorites. They are available at Whole Foods and high-end grocery stores. I cook turkey meatballs or boneless chicken in the sauce, serve over basmati rice with raita (sliced cucumber in yogurt). Tasty Bite aseptic packaged dals are good with that, too. Sometimes I buy Trader Joe's Curry Simmer Sauce, cook canned chick peas with potato or butternut squash, or just by themselves in the sauce. Serve with basmati and roasted chicken rubbed with tandoori powder.

                  Marinate boneless chicken thighs in teriyaki sauce and broil or saute. Serve with rice and sesame seeds, salad of cucumber in a dressing made with rice vinegar, soy sauce, cilantro and red pepper flakes.

                  Marinate boneless chicken or steak in a zip-lock bag with lime juice, garlic and a pinch each of ground cumin and oregano. Grill or broil and make soft tacos with fresh corn tortillas. Serve with canned refried beans, homemade or Frontera-type salsa and chopped fresh cilantro.

                  1. In my humble opinion, you don't always need pre-made sauces to prepare good ethnic cuisine. My specific example is Indian food. Go to an Indian grocery and buy 1) turmeric, 2) ground cumin, 3) ground coriander, 4) cayenne/chili pepper, 5) CalonJi (onion seed), and a variety of Dal (lentils), and 6) fresh coriander. With these core ingredients you can quickly and easily make a very wide variety of outstandingly authentic Indian items. One example: Get one large Daikon from your local grocer, julienne it. Put about 3 tbl of canola oil in a pan (i use a large wok). Add a tsp. of Calonji over heat, and add a serrano (or equivalent) chili. If you want it hot, cut up the chili. When the Calonji start sizzling, add the Daikon, and about a tsp of turmeric and about a tsp. of ground coriander. Toss, and let it cook until the vegetable is done. When almost done, add some chopped fresh corriander. You can do the same exact thing with frozen french cut green beans, minus the ground and fresh corriander. Serve with rice. I learned this from my mother-in-law, and it is quick, easy, delicious, and straight from Calcutta.

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: Tom M.

                      This sounds really good to me. If you do it with the frozen green beans do you need to thaw them first? Any other quick and easy indian dishes?

                      1. re: ben f

                        Yes, thaw any frozen vegetables you might use. Also, and very importantly, I forgot to mention that you must add salt while cooking. One of the keys to the best flavor is finding the right balance of salt. I am feverishly accumulating knowledge from my mother-in-law, by watching her and shopping with her when she's here in the states and by asking for a new recipe each time we talk to her on the weekends. Then I spend my Sunday cooking up a storm, and we eat it through the week. Nice home-cooked indian food even though nobody gets home from work before 6:30.

                        Here's another good, easy one for chickpeas. Start by heating a little oil with 2 or 3 dried red chilis. When hot, add 1 can (drained) chickpeas, turmeric, cumin, corriander (all ground; my mother-in-law doesn't work with measurements, but I start with about 1/2 heaping tsp. turmeric, and twice as much each cumin and corriander and then adjust from there), two or so tomatoes (quartered or so), and one big chopped onion (i'm using yellow ones). Add salt, and water, and cook. The key with the water, salt, and spices is to get a good sauce, which will be flavorful as it reduces. Just keep tasting and adjusting as you like. There is an opportunity to cheat on this one: if the tomatoe/salt combination isn't right, you can add a little amount of catsup to fix it - but that's admitting defeat.

                        Or try cauliflower. Start with oil, about a tsp of whole cumin, and heat. Add about 2 potatoes (I use yukon gold), quartered or so but not too big because you don't want them to take too long to cook, turmeric, corriander, cumin (ground, again, generally twice as much cumin and corriander as turmeric), salt and cayenne (to taste for your heat preference.) Then I add the cauliflower broken up, one head for these measurements, and don't break it into pieces that are too small. Then do the add water, cook, adjust seasonings, so you have a nice sauce for the rice. The trick is to get the potatoes cooked without having the cauliflower disintegrate. It's an adjustment/practice thing.

                        I'm also doing chicken stuff now, and am about to tackle fish which, I have learned, is a huge part of Bengali cooking.

                      2. re: Tom M.

                        I agree on the basics ( for a bengali dish). you may also want to throw a few mustard seeds (rai in indian stores) in there. Most indian would also use whole cumin in the oil.

                        One small thing - Kalonji is not really onion seed, though it is sometimes labeled as such - i think the actual name is nigella. They are small black tear shaped seeds

                        1. re: zim

                          Cabbage dishes are among the best in the indian repertory - my kids'favorite is a cabbage stir fry with onions, punch phoron (a tsp of an equal mix of WHOLE kalonji, cumin seeds, mustard seed, fenugreek seed and fennel) a little turmeric, a bit of sugar, salt green chiles and fresh coriander. Sounds more complicated than it is, believe me.
                          Once you make the mix of spices, it just takes a few minutes.
                          heat some oil (it could be mustard oil, in which case heat quite hot and stand back!) but any veg oil will do, put in a bit of turmeric (1/4 tsp maybe) and the seeds; when they start to darken and sizzle add a sliced onion, and after a minute or so, 1/2 cabbage, sliced thinly and 1 or more chopped up green chiles. stir fry until coated with oil then add salt to taste and a sprinkling of sugar, cover and steam until crisp-tender.

                          A similar recipes in one of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks uses cumin as the only spice and adds frozen tender peas for the final stir fry/steaming stage.

                          She also has a recipe for a simple stir fry similar to the above, but adding grated carrots and lemon juice to the chile-cumin-sugar/salt-green coriander seasoning mix.

                          There are lots of good recipes, bengali, south indian and otherwise, involving briefly sauteeing/steaming beans cabbage or other vegs in with mustard seed, sesame seeds cumin or other seeds or dals (in the case of s. Indian recipes) adding grated coconut and green coriander at the end. These are wonderful and rich tasting.

                          Or thaw some frozen spinach and squeeze all the water out of it - chop some onion, ginger and a bit of green chile finely, sautee in butter or ghee or oil til golden and add your spinach, and salt to taste. sautee for a few minutes then add fresh coriander leaves, a sprinkle of garam masala (a fragrant spice mix generally added to already cooked dishes).

                          with rice, dal and maybe a raita, these dishes make a great indian meal and rehead very well.

                          I would urge you to pick up an indian cookbook and explore some of the vegetable recipes, which are infinitely easier to execute than and equally satisfying as the very time-consuming northern meat dishes (first peel 10 onions.... )


                          1. re: jen kalb

                            I think I do better hearing people describe indian dishes than reading about them in books. When I've tried to read books (sahni or Jaffrey)of Indian cooking I've been sort of overwhelmed by the ingredients/underwhelmed by the lack of evocative description.

                            But that cabbage sounds good to me.


                            1. re: ben f

                              I think that's a matter of experience. The more you experiment with the different ingredients and flavor/texture combinations, the easier it becomes to visualize (if one's palate can visualize) what a given recipe will be like. I had the same problem when I started cooking Indian, then I kept trying things 'til I got the hang of it.

                              Also, I often find that a long ingredient list is mostly spices, which are just to be measured out and kept handy or mixed together. Once you get those lined up, the rest is usually fairly straightforward. Even when the recipe calls for roasting/grinding the spices, I can do 'em up pretty quick in a dry skillet/coffee grinder. Don't be intimidated.

                            2. re: jen kalb

                              the ingredient lists can seem intimidating - and the meat stews (korma do piaza etc) do take forever. But most of the technique is really easy, and once you assemble a few spices and some dal, and learn to keep ginger, fresh coriander and yogurt in the house, you can execute many easy dishes. The food also keeps well, so that you can cook a good sized pots of rice and dal and supplement your leftovers with a veg dish, carrying on from night to night.

                              1. re: jen kalb

                                What I'm going to say will horrify true Indian cooks, but when I make the Madhur Jaffrey cabbage-carrot-cilantro-chile stir fry (I think it's Gujerati Cabbage), I roast the mustard seeds and dried chile pepper in the oil, then add a half lb. or so of cubed swordfish, brown that, then proceed as directed with the cabbage, carrot, jalepeno pepper, cilantro, sugar, salt and lemon ...Of course it's not authentic; it's my own "fusion" cuisine, and it's a great dinner.

                            3. re: Tom M.

                              Patak's curry pastes, pickles and chutneys are great to have around. I'm very partial to their hot curry paste and their mango pickle. I'm not sold on the bright green pickles with fenugreek in them, but your mileage may vary. You can make a delicious curry by following the recipe on the back of the jar. You can also add them to salad dressings, dips, or marinades.

                              1. re: Tom M.

                                You're absolutely right about not needing pre-made sauces to make good Indian food. However, the request was for ethnic food shortcuts. I love cooking things from scratch, but there are times when the prospect of pulling a zillion jars of spices from the drawer, and several prep steps, in addition to all the extra clean-up, is more than I have the energy for. I'm guessing that Heidipie is anticipating that having a newborn to care for will be like that. It certainly was for me. There are times when making fresh from scratch is "the only way to go" but there need be no shame in acknowledging that there are times when you can't hack it, and taking high-quality shortcuts. More power to her, not to want to plan on living on take-out and frozen food in the microwave.

                                1. re: zora

                                  You are absolutely right. The point I should have made more simply and directly, though, is that the dishes I reverence are very simple to make, and will hold in the fridge for about a week. We are a (hard) working couple with one 6 year-old, and a baby due in June. I'm the cook, and am constantly looking for ways to feed us all good food on a very tight schedule. This works for us.

                              2. j

                                My baby was born 13 years ago but I still like my Indian jarred shortcuts. Sukhi's products are usually good. Local for you and me--San Leandro, CA; phone: 510-633-1144; www.sikhis.com; email: info@sukhis.com. My favorites are their tandoori marinade (I just mix it 50/50 with plain yogurt), curry paste, mango chutney. I've found it at farmers' markets all over SF Bay area and at Whole Foods and Andronico's groceries.