Tuesday, April 22, 2014

5 Quick Questions with Simon Majumdar

Food Network host and author Simon Majumdar and I first met last August in Las Vegas outside the Kitchen Arena that was set up as the battleground for the World Food Championships: The Ultimate Food Fight. My buddy Ben Vaughn introduced us, and I handed Simon a copy of our cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian. We immediately started talking food. He told me that since his family is from India, vegetarian meals were not uncommon. Life Saving Dahl, he told me, was his favorite. He was kind enough to share the recipe with The Chubby Vegetarian -- check back here tomorrow for this amazing recipe!

Simon Majumdar, Ben Vaughn, and Justin Fox Burks at the World Food Championships in 2013.
Cooking this dish taught me so much about how to achieve the deep and complex flavors of traditional Indian cooking that elevate simple ingredients like lentils and onions and result in a complex, wonderful dish. One of the many takeaways for me was the use of a lemon cut into eighths and tossed into the stew in order to add acidity. I'll be using that trick again and again. 

A big thanks to Simon for sharing the recipe and answering our questions.   

1. TCV: I so enjoyed talking with you at the World Food Championship last year! You told me about your favorite vegetarian recipe, Life Saving Dahl. So, what's the origin of that recipe? [BTW, we made it, and it's amazing! Readers, it'll be up tomorrow as a new recipe post on TCV. You've got to try it!] 

Simon: This is very much a family dish. My Bengali great aunt (who was closer to me than my own grandmother and who I called 'grandmother') taught me how to pre-toast the red lentils in a dry pan, stirring with my fingers. She claimed it added a nutty flavor to the red lentils and helped them absorb more flavors from the spices. I am not sure if that is true or not, but it is a very comforting process, and I cannot make the dish without doing it now.  It just wouldn't seem right. It is our family's go-to comfort dish, our chicken soup. I make it any time that both body and soul need nourishing. I have even got my wife addicted to it now, and she requests I make it every time she is feeling under the weather.

2. TCV: It's a Tuesday night and you're at home just hanging out. There's no one around to impress. What are you cooking?

Simon: I know this is a vegetarian blog, but my ultimate comfort meal is just a simple roast chicken. I always spatchcock mine and roast in a cast-iron skillet over a bed of chopped onions. The onions confit in the chicken fat and the whole surface of the bird becomes crisp. I usually make my own roast garlic mayonnaise to accompany it and eat the chicken with my hands, tearing bits of flesh off to dip in the mayo.  

3. TCV: I made a lot of changes after I lost my mother in 2008. Mainly, I improved my quality of life by losing 75 pounds and running marathons. You cite the same cause as a reason for shaking things up in your own life. What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to make a big change for the better?

Simon: My advice is to follow the thing that you are most passionate about. Food has always been my obsession, and I quit my job in publishing 2006 to go around the world and eat.  It changed my life and my career. I know that not everyone has the time, money, or inclination to do something that drastic, but I do believe that if you set yourself stretching challenges, great rewards will come.  It could be, like you, losing weight.  It could be to cook more food at home, or it could be to travel or study.  My only request is that you don't play at it.  Make a goal and go for it. 

Just in case you are wondering about my next goal…I turned 50 last week and have set myself a challenge of appearing in a masters body building competition in 2015. It's going to be tough, but I am determined to give it my best shot.

4.TCV: What ingredient or technique has your undivided interest right now?

Simon: I am really fascinated by old-school techniques and dishes right now. I think a lot of them became classics for a reason and have been sadly forgotten. I don't get to spend half as much time in my kitchen as I would like, but when I do, I love to play around with the classic old recipes like Lobster Newburg or Steak Diane.

5. TCV: From your travels to your books to your work on Cutthroat Kitchen, Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef, Extreme Chef, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and many other Food Network shows, you have experience with a whole lot of food, to say the least. So, what makes a dish memorable for you?

Simon: There are so many elements to a great dish. Terrific ingredients, of course, particularly when coupled with impeccable technique that lets those ingredients shine.  As well as all of these, of course, there is context. Does a hot dog ever taste better than at a ball game? Does a cold beer ever taste better than at a summer's day picnic? I have been traveling around the world for the last few months, and I am certain that the great meals I had were made even better by eating them in the places I visited and with the people I met.

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