Monday, November 23, 2009

A chat and talk and cook kind of thing.

"A chat and talk and cook kind of thing." This is how Ranveer Brar, corporate chef for One World Cuisine, introduced the Tuesday night cooking class at Mantra's Naan Bar. I had arrived excited for the class but flustered after a long day at work, and his relaxed description sounded like exactly what the doctor ordered. What could be better than that, after all?

The class, which Mantra runs every Tuesday from 5:30-6:30, is designed to "demystify the tandoor," says Chef Brar. Indeed, within minutes of arriving, I had learned that the cylindrical tandoor oven, which originated in Turkey, is fired at the bottom and is most often made of clay bound around coils of rope. In India, where bread is also sometimes grill-baked at home, there are often community tandoors, used jointly by a group of families. And, if you have neither a private nor a community tandoor, as is true for most of us in the States, Brar recommends using any piece of non-glazed cookware for baking, such as a terra cotta dish or a pizza stone. Heat the oven to 450 for breads and 400 for meats, and you'll have at least some approximation of the tandoor.

The first lesson of the day was how to make naan dough. Here in the U.S., where the flour is harder and has more gluten than in India, the ideal dough is made with 30% milk. For our batch, Brar used 1 egg, 2 pounds of self-rising flour, milk, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. He also added just a teaspoon of oil toward the end. He cautioned against over-kneading and then put the dough away to rest for 2 hours, swapping it out for an already rested batch.

The dough, once shaped into naan-sized portions, is cooked on the side of the ovens, where it connects with a slap. Once ready, it's removed with two metal skewers and set aside for serving. While Brar used plain dough for our naans, it's also common to add mint or toasted caraway to the dough itself--yum.

Our naan samples were served with three chutneys: mint & cashew, tamarind, and tomato and onion seed. All three were delicious, but the mint & cashew seemed to be the crowd favorite. In addition to the basic naan, we were treated to tastings of a green chili and mozzarella stuffed naan, as well as one stuffed with date and coconut. Both combinations were surprising to me (I usually just go straight for the garlic naan) and both were delicious. Dates, Chef Brar told us, were historically used in royal bread, and it wasn't hard to see why. Their sweet flavor and rich texture made for a unique and decadent dish.

Next it was onto the meats, which came with a brief lesson in spices. The Ayurvedic style used in India is a holistic approach devoted to achieving harmony in the body. "Your body type dictates what you're going to eat," Chef Brar explained. The tandoor spices that he used for our kebabs included ground red chili, celery seed, cilantro, toasted coriander, fried onion, and garam masala. There are 12 altogether, six heating and six cooling for balance. Given this holistic philosophy, I was happy to hear that Chef Brar and One World Cuisine are also working to balance their menu from a sustainability perspective by purchasing produce from local markets in the summer and fall, as well asVermont chevre.

First up was a seekh kebab--seekh is the word for skewer--which is typically made with beef or lamb depending on the religion on the region in India. This recipe was a mixture of ground lamb, ginger, and garlic, molded in a careful cylinder around the skewer before going into the oven. According to Chef Brar, the ideal kebab should consist of 10% flavoring and spices, 90% meat. Next, we enjoyed a Roti kebab, which held larger chunks of meat, more similar to the "kebabs" I make at home on the grill. This style of kebab is marinated in yogurt, which acts as a great tenderizer for the meat. Chef Brar's recipe includes 1 pound yogurt, 2 ounces each of ginger and garlic paste, 2 ounces of chick pea flour, and salt and pepper. We also got to try a chipotle chicken tikka, which was tender and packed with flavor.

In addition to the cooking classes, the Naan Bar has a separate menu full of delicious-sounding taste treats. There are appetizers like Mustard-Seed Lamb Chops and Chili Mussels, as well as endless varieties of naan, ranging from smoked salmon to PB&J! For just $12 you can choose your three favorite and make it a trio. While our group was fairly full after so many generous samples, we agreed that we would come back another night to enjoy the many delights on offer.

All told, the cooking class is a lovely way to unwind after a long day at work. For just $20, you get a wealth of information, all those yummy samples, and a cocktail to boot. To reserve your spot, visit Mantra's website or give them a call at (617) 542-8111. Happy eating!

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