Second lesson — don't confuse heat and warmth. Especially in Indian cuisine, they are wildly different concepts.
Third lesson — Indian cooking is a deliciously inexact science. Embrace its freewheeling approach and all of your cooking, Indian and otherwise, will be better.
And all of that is why I want to introduce you to garam masala, a widely available, yet little used (in the U.S.) seasoning blend from northern India. Like so many Indian spice blends, there is no set recipe for garam masala. The ingredients can vary tremendously by region and cook. But in general, it usually contains a mix of spices that are at once sweet and warming — coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and black pepper.
By warming, I mean the flavour has a fullness without acidity or sharp flavours. Think spice cookies and gingerbread minus the sugar. This is different than the spicy heat we associate with chili peppers.
That's a flavour profile not common to American cooking, but the wonders it works on roasted meats and vegetables make it worth changing that.
Garam masala differs from many spice blends in that the whole spices are toasted before being ground together. Why do you care? Most spice blends, especially from India, are intended to be heated before use to draw out their flavour. This means they need to be added at the start of a recipe.
But because garam masala already is toasted, it can be used as a condiment on meats, cooked grains, even breads and yogurt dips. For ideas for using garam masala, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network: http://bit.ly/Nfg4dj
SMASHED AND ROASTED GARAM MASALA POTATOES
Start to finish: 45 minutes
3 pounds red or yellow new potatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon garam masala
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 cup grated manchego cheese
Heat the oven to 400 F. Coat 2 baking sheets with oil or cooking spray.
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and add enough cool water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain well.
Return the potatoes to the pot and set over medium heat. Heat, shaking the pan frequently to keep the potatoes moving, for 1 minute, or until dry.
Transfer the potatoes to the prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 inches around each. One at a time, set a sturdy mug over each and push down to lightly crush. They should be lightly cracked and slightly flattened, but not falling apart. You also can use a potato masher (but press only gently).
In a small liquid measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil and garam masala. Drizzle the oil over the potatoes, coating each one well. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper, then roast for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Sprinkle the manchego over each, then return to the oven for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 330 calories; 140 calories from fat (42 per cent of total calories); 15 g fat (4.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 20 mg cholesterol; 41 g carbohydrate; 9 g protein; 5 g fiber; 290 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.