Grocery shopping can get pretty humdrum and meal planning a drag. So when I heard that Whole Foods Markets are putting some interesting ethnic items on their prepared foods menus, I wanted to meet Rashne Desai, the woman behind the meals.
We got together at the Plantation store, where I learned Desai grew up in Bombay in a Zoroastrian family. Living in a religious minority originally from Persia, they ate “Parsi” food, but made with Indian spices.
“We took Indian flavors and added to them,” Desai says. Much as Cubans have sofrito, this cooking has a flavor base made up of sauteed onions, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, spices and tomatoes.
Today, as an executive coordinator of prepared foods for Whole Foods, Desai is re-creating these flavors for the company’s Florida stores.
It’s been a long journey.
In 1970, Desai came to the United States to attend school in Hartford, Conn. “I hated my first year here. It was too quiet.”
She was used to the meat, vegetable, flower and milk vendors coming to the door. “There was no one on the streets in this country,” she says.
But by her second year, she adapted. Her mother mailed her the spices she needed to cook the flavors she craved. And an Indian professor invited her to join his family for meals.
After graduation, she worked for Citibank in New York City.
“There I had tons of Indian food,” she says. And she enjoyed living in an urban center.
But when she reached the point in her career that she’d have to get an MBA to advance, she decided to learn to cook instead.
“It was very daring of me,” she says. “My father was freaking out.”
She took a leave of absence from her job and went to the French Culinary Institute for an intensive nine-month program that led to a Grande Diplome. She found the French culinary training strict.
“It disciplines you. I learned cooking techniques that today I use in my Indian cooking,” she says.
She quit banking and went to work for Dean & Deluca gourmet market. In 1994, tired of the winters and her small apartment in New York, she moved to Florida and got a job at Unicorn Village in Aventura.
If you have lived here any length of time, you might remember this store as a pioneer in the tofu and whole-grain business.
When Whole Foods Markets bought the store, her job evolved to what it is today.
In all this, she hasn’t forgotten her Indian roots. In fact, she’s putting more of her family-influenced dishes on the company’s self-service hot bars, the fresh-pack refrigerated sections and the pre-packaged and ready-to-eat areas.
“People think Indian cuisine is too complex to make at home, so I want to have it ready for them,” she says. But she’s made the Indian dishes she’s known from childhood more healthful.
“It’s a myth that Indian food has to be fattening,” she says. She substitutes oil for ghee (a form of clarified butter), fat-free yogurt and sour cream for the full-fat options. “The flavor doesn’t change.”
She offers rotating choices such as vegan tofu saag made with tofu and oat milk, chickpea masala, chicken Kashmir, samosas, pork vindaloo and lamb korma. She also has created a garam masala spice mix.
The largest selection of these items is in the Palm Beach store, but some are available at each of the Florida Whole Food Markets.
New gluten-free fare
Whole Foods Markets also has introduced some new products from their Gluten Free Bakehouse, their dedicated bakery in Chapel Hill, N.C. Lee Tobin, who is gluten-intolerant and who created the Bakehouse, recently appeared at the Fort Lauderdale store to teach a gluten-free cooking class. However, the class wasn’t very useful because he demonstrated recipes that never contained gluten in the first place (cioppino, saffron rice, salad).
What was helpful though was at the end of the class, when we sampled new items from the Bakehouse. I was very impressed with the texture and flavor of the sourdough bread, the morning glory muffins and the nutmeal raisin cookies. I was less pleased with hamburger buns and dinner rolls that both tended to be gummy and sweet. The products are shipped frozen to the stores.
Whole Foods also carries Comfy Cuisine’s all natural, gluten- and sugar-free products. That line is introducing four new entrees: cheese manicotti, vegetable lasagna, spinach ravioli and eggplant parmesan.