Vikas Khanna grew up in Amritsar, India, where the backyard, a 3-foot by 10-foot patch of land, was a world unto itself.
It was there that as a child he tried to see what would grow. The first little green tomato made him exuberant. He would measure the growing flowers with a ruler. In the middle of his excitement, he broke one.
“That garden gave me sustenance because it made me feel like a really big farmer,” he said. “I wanted to be a farmer and I wanted to be a chef—I didn’t know what a chef was. I used the word cook.”
Khanna, the corporate chef at the Michelin-starred Junoon, has made vegetables the focus of his latest cookbook, “Indian Harvest: Classic and Contemporary Cuisine.” It offers contemporary recipes and takes on some traditional dishes. Potato wedges, for example, are baked and seasoned with garlic, ginger, smoky cumin seeds, and tangy-sweet tamarind.
A recipe for poriyal, a traditional Tamil stir-fry dish with shredded coconut, is offered with split beans and yams, and perfumed with mustard seed and curry leaves, but like many other recipes in the book invites experimentation and substitution with other vegetables.
The photography is lavish and colorful. An early section on spices shows them neither packaged nor in ground form but in their original plant form, looking like jewels of the earth.
It’s no accident that Khanna called his garden in Amritsar The Temple of Pearls.
He remembers trying to grow cardamom, an expensive spice that he was not allowed to touch at home.
One day, he took his opportunity. “I stole cardamom and took it to the soil to the back of my house and my question was, will cardamom grow?” The moment he came back from school he would go to the back and check—expecting a tree. “I didn’t know how it grew, there was no Google. I waited and waited—nothing! I used to feel guilty that I wasted those pods and could have eaten them.”
It was years later that he visited a farm in Kerala and saw the plants, sprawling horizontally on the ground. “That’s why it’s so precious, only one region can do it,” he said.
He has memories of his grandfather saying, “Nobody grew rich by plucking one potato and spending three months on it. You’re not going to be a rich man. You waste all this time in this little garden.”
There was a lime tree; there were marigolds that his grandmother never plucked, saying they were like family.
When he launched his catering company, he named it Lawrence Gardens. The site of the banquet hall was exactly in the same space. His business flourished and little by little, the garden disappeared: first the grass died, then a mango tree, and then Khanna’s favorite lime tree.
Today the garden is paved over. “There was no one to maintain it,” he said. “Even if it’s gone it remains in my heart and mind.”
Cauliflower With Ginger and Peanuts
The mild and subtle cauliflower gets a new avatar in this simple dish. It’s a very good recipe for large groups, especially when you are serving meals buffet style. The creamy cheese dressing along with the crunchy, roasted peanuts is a perfect combination for the cauliflower.
Serves: 6 to 8
- 2 small cauliflower heads, cut into florets
- Salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter
- One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
4 scallions, finely sliced
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup cream cheese
- 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and add the cauliflower florets and salt to the pot. Cover with the lid and cook until the cauliflower is tender and cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a platter and keep warm.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add ginger, turmeric, and half the scallions and cook, stirring for about a minute.
Season butter with salt and pepper to taste and cook for another minute. Stir in the cream cheese and remove from the heat.
Pour the cream cheese sauce over the cauliflower and serve hot, garnished with the peanuts and reserved scallions.
Excerpted from “Indian Harvest” by Vikas Khanna. Text and recipes copyright © Vikas Khanna 2015. Photographs copyright © Vikas Khanna and Michael Swamy 2015. Published by Bloomsbury USA, reprinted with permission.