Spicing Up The American Diet Food writer Monica Bhide says that when she moved to the U.S. from the Mideast nearly two decades ago, she fell in love with people's playfulness with food. Now American food is an important part of her home cooking repertoire, but she always adds a spicy twist.

Spicing Up The American Diet

Traditional Indian spices including turmeric, fenugreek, chili powder, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander can enliven American dishes like meatloaf or lasagna. iStockphoto.com hide caption

toggle caption

Traditional Indian spices including turmeric, fenugreek, chili powder, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander can enliven American dishes like meatloaf or lasagna.


About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.

Indian by birth, I was raised in the Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain, nurtured by my mother's mostly traditional Indian cooking. When I moved to the U.S. nearly two decades ago, I instantly fell in love with the land's playfulness with food.

My fun-loving American friends — many themselves immigrants from around the world — created new tastes by adding their own spices, herbs and traditions to typical American dishes. I felt a delightful sense of excitement and wonderment toward food and quickly became enamored of my friends' philosophy of no arbitrary rules on how to cook. It was all about what tasted good.

The influence of those friends has greatly affected the way I cook. American food is an important part of my home cooking repertoire, but I always add a spicy twist: Cobb salad is drizzled with a lemon-cilantro dressing; meatloaf is scented with cloves and cinnamon; Hoppin' John is cooked with basmati rice.

My lemonade has a touch of saffron. Mac and cheese at our house is never prepared without a foundation of ground lamb. I combine peanut butter with spices as a marinade for chicken. Starbucks ice cream makes great Indian-style cold coffee. Brussels sprouts hold hands with curry leaves and spices in quick stir-fries; cookies always have anise or fennel; cardamom is in every cup of tea; deli-roasted chicken is served on cumin-scented basmati rice. And I never serve vanilla ice cream without freshly sliced Indian Alphonso mangoes.

My tendency to spice up every food in sight began to bump up against my American-born son Jai's American tastes and sensibilities. I skimped on the truth about the eating habits of his on-screen buddies — Barney loved fenugreek in his spinach; Tweety Bird adored Indian cheese; Scooby Doo always finished his turmeric-spiced yellow rice; and the Wiggles would not ever pass up pancakes made (like mine) with beets in the batter. Jai did fine until the strawberry milk incident.

When Jai was younger, I used to make my favorite drink for him: a cold glass of milk mixed with Rooh Afza, a rose-pink syrup made with fruit and vegetable extracts. I hated drinking plain milk as a kid and would (secretly) pour it down behind my mother's couch. (It took my parents a week to figure out where the awful smell was coming from, and earned me a month of punishment. But I digress.) So the only way I knew to drink milk was to mix it with this syrup, which turns the milk a sublime pink.

When I made it for Jai, he said, "Mama, strawberry milk?" And, well, I never bothered to correct him. For several years, he drank this as strawberry milk. Then school started. He came home one day and said, "Mama, the American strawberry milk in school tastes different. Do you know why that is?"

Ummm ... perhaps it was the strawberry flavor?

Lasagna With Curried Beef And Spinach

Monica Bhide for NPR
Lasagna With Curried Beef And Spinach
Monica Bhide for NPR

This simple recipe uses no-boil noodles to save time. You can also use the regular lasagna noodles; just be sure to prepare them according to the directions before using in this recipe. Also, you can substitute turkey for the ground beef.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small red onion, peeled and minced

1 1/2 pounds ground beef (95 percent lean)

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons ground coriander

One 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

3 cups prepared tomato pasta/spaghetti sauce

One 15-ounce container ricotta cheese

2 large eggs

9 uncooked, oven-ready lasagna noodles, each about 7-by-3-1/2 inches

1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onion is caramel brown and the moisture has dried up.

Add the ground beef and garlic. Cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, using a wooden spoon to break up any clumps, until the beef is no longer pink.

Remove the skillet from the heat and pour off any excess fat.

Return the skillet to the heat and add 3/4 teaspoon of salt, pepper, turmeric, cayenne, coriander and spinach. Mix well and cook for another 3 minutes.

Stir in the pasta sauce. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Spread 1 cup of the spinach-meat sauce over the bottom of an 11-3/4-by-7-1/2-inch glass baking dish. Top with three of the noodles.

Spread a layer of half the ricotta mixture, then a layer of 1-1/2 cups sauce, then sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the mozzarella.

Repeat layering three noodles, the remaining ricotta, another 1-1/2 cups sauce and 1/2 cup mozzarella.

Top with the last three noodles and the remaining meat sauce. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 50 minutes or until noodles are tender and the sauce is bubbly.

Remove the foil. Sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and bake uncovered for about 5 minutes, until the cheese melts.

Let stand about 15 minutes before serving.

Curried Chicken Salad With Mango And Almonds

Monica Bhide for NPR
Curried Chicken Salad With Mango And Almonds
Monica Bhide for NPR

This recipe uses toasted almonds. If you cannot find them at the store, it is very simple to do at home. I prefer to use blanched almonds for this recipe. To blanch your almonds, boil two cups of water and remove from the stove. Add the almonds to the boiling hot water. Let them steep in the water for 20 minutes. The skin should peel off the almonds easily. Discard the water and the skin. Use a napkin to dry the almonds. Heat a skillet on medium heat. Add the blanched almonds and dry roast until golden, about 6 minutes. Be sure to keep stirring so you don't burn the nuts.

Makes 6 servings

For The Salad

3 cups pre-cooked chicken chunks

2 large mangoes, peeled, seeded and diced

1 small ripe papaya, peeled, seeded and diced

1/4 small red onion, peeled and diced

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves

1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced

1 small red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 small green bell pepper, seeded and diced

For The Dressing

3 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/3 cup pineapple juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

Salt and pepper

For Serving

1 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, separated, washed and dried

1 cup toasted almonds (whole or slivered)

Combine all the ingredients for the salad in a large bowl. Set aside.

Whisk together the honey, ginger, lemon juice, pineapple juice, olive oil, cayenne and curry powder. Taste and adjust for sweetness.

Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss again.

Refrigerate, covered, for about 30 minutes. This allows the flavors to meld.

Just before serving, divide the lettuce among six individual plates. Top with the salad and garnish with toasted almonds.

Cumin-Scented Meatloaf

I will admit, I avoided meatloaf for the longest time because to me, it tasted so bland. But then I tried it at a friend's home, and she had glazed it with a spicy maple syrup concoction. It gave me the idea to spice up the dish, and now it is a favorite at our house. For the topping, you can use any chili sauce, depending on how much heat you like.

Makes 6 servings

For The Meatloaf

1-1/2 pounds ground beef (95 percent lean)

1 large egg

3/4 cup whole milk

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

For The Sauce

1/2 cup chili sauce

1/2 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Combine all the meatloaf ingredients in a large bowl. The best tools for mixing are your hands. Mix everything well so that all the spices and meat are well combined.

Lightly pack the mixture into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Spoon half the sauce over the meatloaf. Bake the meatloaf for another 30 minutes or until completely cooked through.

Remove from the oven. Allow to cool slightly in the pan (about 5 minutes).

Remove the meatloaf from the pan and cut into 3/4-inch slices. Serve topped with the remaining sauce.

Gingered Sweet Potatoes

Monica Bhide for NPR
Gingered Sweet Potatoes
Monica Bhide for NPR

This recipe gets its delightful flavor from the ginger juice that is used in the sauce. It is simple to make: Grate a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger with a cheese grater. Using your fingers, press the grated ginger so that it releases all its juice. Discard the flesh. It is best to make this fresh and use it immediately.

Makes 6 servings

For The Potatoes

1 tablespoon salt

5 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

For The Sauce

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon ginger juice

Pinch of ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a medium casserole dish.

To cook the potatoes, combine 8 cups water and the salt in a large pot. Add the sweet potato slices and bring to a boil over high heat.

Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes or until the potatoes are just fork tender. Drain and set aside.

While the potatoes are draining, prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a small skillet on medium-low heat. Add the honey, ginger juice, cloves, white pepper, lemon juice, cinnamon and salt. Mix well. Remove from the heat.

Place the drained potatoes in the prepared casserole. Drizzle with the sauce and toss to mix well.

Bake uncovered for about 40 minutes, until the potatoes are completely cooked through. They will begin to turn brown, and the sauce will begin to thicken. Turn once during baking.

Serve hot.