Raj Gohil earned his masters of fine arts in Cincinnati, but when he's cooking dinner in his Buffalo kitchen, his spice cabinet is his palette.
Reaching into a shelf crowded with jars of whole spices like white poppy seeds, fenugreek and Malabar peppercorns, Gohil pulls out a jar half-filled with ivory powder.
"Asafoetida," said Gohil, The News' October Cook of the Month, unscrewing the lid. The scent of gastric distress leaks into his Parkside kitchen.
"Stinky stuff," Gohil shrugged. "But a little bit brings out the flavors. In traditional Indian cooking, they compare this to truffle for seasoning. You put it in the food and it really brings out all the flavors."
Gohil calls his artwork mixed media, a label that ably describes his cooking. He doesn't like to follow recipes, preferring to use seasonal American ingredients, especially vegetables, with Indian spices.
The complexity of the Indian spice arsenal can be intimidating, he admits.
Despite its reputation, however, Indian flavors don't require large amounts of spices, he says -- just judicious amounts of the right ones. "My background is in art, and I've written about how cooking is like art," said Gohil. "The main thing is the balance."
Gohil, who lives with his wife, Pratima Gohil, was born in the Indian state of Gujurat; his first name is actually Rajendrasinh. He came to the United States in 1971 as an art student. He moved to Buffalo in 1976 to untangle an immigration issue, and has lived here since.
Art remains his avocation, but it didn't pay Gohil's bills -- baking did. Gohil put in 26 years at Kaufman's Bakery before the company closed, ending his career there as a line manager.
Gohil chose a roasted butternut casserole to share with News readers, an able representative of his style because it uses a distinctly American vegetable enhanced with flavors of the subcontinent.
"There is no butternut squash in India," he said.
It's best to create your own spice mixtures, or masalas, because the flavoring power of spices can be fleeting, Gohil notes. That's why he roasts and grinds his own garam masala spice mixture, with cardamom, cloves, pepper and other spices, making only enough to last a month. He makes his own custom curry powder as well, and explains how the two blends differ.
"You cook with curry powder, but you can sprinkle garam masala at the end," Gohil said. "Garam masala spices are already roasted. Curry powder, all the spices are raw, so to get the raw smell out, you cook it."
Guests at his house enjoy seasonal Indian-inflected dishes and hybrid desserts like passion fruit mousse cheesecake and chai masala cheesecake, flavored like milky Indian spiced tea.
Gohil's repertoire includes treats like whole fish rubbed in a spice paste, then cooked in a banana leaf.
While more Americans are looking to the spices of Indian cuisine for health benefits, plenty of people still hesitate to cook Indian food, Gohil noted.
"Indian cooking in general is very holistic -- every spice has got some kind of medicinal value in it, like turmeric and cumin," Gohil said. "But people don't like putting curry powder in their food, it changes the taste and the color. So now at the drugstore they have curry powder pills."
>Baked Butternut Squash with Indian Spices
6 cups butternut squash, skinned, seeded and cut into 1 inch cubes (2 small ones)
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium red onion, peeled, and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon dry crumbled thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup washed, dried and chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup lightly toasted and chopped walnuts
1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese (optional)
Heat oven to 450 F.
Generously grease 10-by-14-inch glass or metal baking dish. Toss squash, peppers, onion and garlic in large mixing bowl with olive oil. Sprinkle in the spices, up to and including the black pepper, and mix the vegetables thoroughly. Spread the vegetables evenly in the baking dish and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 25 minutes.
Carefully remove the foil and bake for another 40 minutes, stirring the mixture 2 or 3 times. Check it for doneness; a toothpick should easily pierce the squash. Remove the dish from the oven and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Just before serving, garnish with cilantro, walnuts and goat cheese.
>Apple Pine Nut Raita
1 Gala Empire or McIntosh apple, peeled cored and diced into 1/4 -inch pieces
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon mild green chili, seeded and finely minced
20 mint leaves, cut into chiffonade
1 1/2 cups whole milk yogurt
1/4 teaspoon garam masala (blend of different spices)
Salt to taste
1 1/2 tablespoon lightly toasted pine nuts
Stir the apples, lime juice, chili and mint in small bowl.
Whisk yogurt until smooth. Stir in the apple mixture and season it with garam masala and salt. Refrigerate at least 1 hour. Serve with pine nuts.
Name: Rajendrasinh "Raj" Gohil
Go-to instant meal: Omelet stuffed with vegetables and cheese
Guilty pleasure: Indian sweets