Photos by Wil Fernandez

Indian Feast

Global Local Cuisine

See Global Local Cuisine for menu and recipes.

California is fortunate in its ability to grow fresh produce all year long. Our temperate climate and fertile soils, especially in Santa Barbara County, allow for even delicate foods like strawberries to grow the majority of the year. Eating local food is a way of life. However, my passion is cooking exotic cuisines. So using local ingredients to create meals influenced by cuisines from around the world is something I adore. I like to challenge myself to create authentic flavors using as many local ingredients as possible.

The cuisine of India has always intrigued me. When I was a little girl, my grandparents visited India, returning laden with beautiful souvenirs and endless stories of colorful markets. Ever since, I have immersed myself in the culture, languages, religions and food. The subtle heat, the glorious colors of the spices and the intricacy (what is that flavor?) of the recipes brought on an obsession—one I have tried to perfect over the years.

My revelation was perfectly cooked chapati, a flatbread made throughout India. At the age of nine I tested numerous recipes, but finally mastered this simple creation which, when cooked on a stovetop, browned perfectly. Slightly chewy and nutty, it melded seamlessly with vindaloos, curries and vegetable combinations of all kinds. It was a profound lesson in the importance of bread within a culture: Whether a French baguette, an Italian ciabatta or an Indian chapati, these staples play a huge role in the meal itself.

Seasonality plays a role, too. In the fall, my favorite produce includes spinach and other greens, pomegranates and late tomatoes and eggplants. I often seek out farms and growers in our area, and one I continually return to is Finley Farms. This family-run farm in Santa Ynez is accessible at most local farmers markets, and also has an honor-system vegetable stand tucked away on Refugio Road.

Onions from the organic farm have an appealing sweet and pure flavor, and Finley’s greens are exceptional year-round. Their squash—brightly colored and blemish free—is also wonderful in every season. Supporting a local family and their organically grown delicious produce bolsters our farming community.

The beauty of Indian food is in the colors and textures, so the menu and recipes presented here reflect those characteristics. Preparing all of these dishes will take some time, but the results are mouthwatering surprises, especially for guests who aren’t sure what to expect. The wonderful thing about this food is that if you’re able to plan ahead, the meals can simply be heated right before you eat, so you’re able to enjoy time with your guests. I tend to make the bread the morning of the meal, and if you make the curries and meat dishes the night before, the flavors will deepen even more by the time you serve them.

There are many spices used in Indian cooking, and this is one area where you will probably have to source from outside our region. I find a few of them to be truly indispensable. Start building your own Indian pantry with these ingredients, and your dishes will take on a whole new element of flavor.

Fenugreek, in dried leaf form or seed, has a pungent aroma from a chemical called sotolon often found in some aged Champagnes and Cabernets. It heightens the aromas of the other spices used. Asafetida is probably the most exotic component in these recipes, and it adds a truly Indian flavor to vegetable dishes. Alone, it has an almost unpleasant smell, but in dishes it becomes slightly oniony. Finally, green cardamom pods add a distinctly citrus herb flavor and are used in many Indian recipes.

With all of the spices and flavors in Indian food, choosing a beverage can be a challenge. Typically these foods are paired with light beers and lagers, which can work very well. But we opted to experiment with local wine pairings, considering producers who make high-acid food-friendly white wines like Rieslings, bright and fresh rosés and light, lively red wines. The recurring element in our taste tests ended up being low alcohol, because the slight chile heat in the cuisine easily makes wine taste “hot.”

For an Indian feast, I love to start with something crunchy, and for some reason it usually seems to involve potatoes. Samosas are always a treat, but Spinach and Potato Cakes (Palak Ki Tiki) are unique and have a subtle spiciness that matches well with white wines like Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.

The cakes can easily be made ahead and reheated in the oven, and their aroma will fill the room. The 2016 Spear Grüner Veltliner from Solminer is a fantastic match with these because of its interesting saline note that finishes with sweet pea, lime and maybe apple paste. The 2015 Stirm Riesling is a great pairing as well, with its lovely stone fruit and rose petal aroma.

In India, family-style main courses are the norm, so the wines need to have enough acidity to balance many kinds of foods. My Indian dinners typically include rice, a lamb or chicken dish and lots of vegetables. My absolute favorite Indian dish, hands down, is Saag Paneer, or Spinach with Indian Cheese.

For years, my recipes at home didn’t quite taste right, until, on a whim, I added dried fenugreek—and I found my missing ingredient for perfect Saag Paneer. If you want to go all-out, making your own paneer is simple and delicious, but you can purchase it as well, or use potatoes or even tofu. I also don’t purée my Saag Paneer; I love the chunky texture of the onions and spinach together.

You could opt to go for a completely vegetarian feast, but I love several Indian meat dishes, so I tend to include one. Pomegranate Chicken is perfect for fall, and the presentation is gorgeous with fresh pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. One favorite recent pairing is Solminer’s 2014 Rubellite, a Syrah, Grenache and Riesling blend, which combines beautifully with lamb korma, a more commonly known Indian dish.

Dessert is usually not spotlighted on the Indian table, but that’s not to say that something sweet isn’t vital to the meal. Carrot pudding, made just like rice pudding but with carrots, brings out the natural sweetness of this vegetable and is the perfect end to a spicy and complex meal. Cardamom seed, with its herbal and citrusy character, melds well with the carrots.

Eating and drinking with friends is vital to our life here on the Central Coast, and this type of meal, where everyone shares stories, laughs and passes dishes around, is a perfect way to enjoy it. No culture in the world embraces family and community like India, and it’s easy to mimic that here in our local area by using fantastic, locally grown, organic ingredients.

Laura Booras is the general manager at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. She lives on the vineyard, where she regularly hosts food writers, celebrity chefs and wine critics for unique meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients.


Categories Fall 2017