Turmeric is the latest poster child for the healthy living movement, thanks to its reputed anti-inflammatory properties. It's also a staple spice in Indian food, which is why The Splendid Table's David Leite asked legendary author and cooking teacher Julie Sahni to tell us a little more about it.

David Leite: Poor, misunderstood turmeric. Not a lot of people know what to do with it, so why don't we start from the beginning. What exactly is turmeric?

Julie Sahni Julie Sahni Photo: Mother's Bistro

Julie Sahni: Turmeric is like ginger. It's a rhizome. It does have that yellow color, so that's why people know it as a coloring agent. But the healing properties it has are unbelievable, and its culinary qualities are amazing. You can buy it as a fresh rhizome in the grocery section like you would fresh ginger, but it's most popular in the form of a powder, like chili powder.

DL: What are some of your favorite ways of cooking with turmeric?

JS: Turmeric is a powder the way we use it, and it will burn very easily if you put it in hot oil directly. You have to know how to keep the oil at a very low temperature when you are adding turmeric, or you add the turmeric and immediately add the vegetable or the meat so it stops burning.

The other thing is to put it in the liquid itself, create a broth, and cook ingredients in it. I particularly like when it is added to vegetables directly, and for chicken. I would put it in a marinade in oil. It's also wonderful in rice because you can make beautiful yellow rice, which is very popular in the northwestern part of India.

I like it in the stir-fried form if you are going to use it as a marinade, which I love. Because if you combine black pepper with the turmeric and little bit if ginger, it's like one, two, three, four: You have one portion of black pepper, you have two portions of turmeric, you have three portions of ginger, and four portions of lemon or lime.

DL: That sounds wonderful.

Almond Turmeric Potatoes Almond Turmeric Potatoes

JS: You have it like a paste, put this over fish, and set it aside. When you're ready to cook, very lightly just dust it with chickpea flour, which is very good for you. It's very low on the glycemic index.

DL: Do you pan sear that?

JS: Pan sear it with very little oil. If you don't want that oil, then you can simply put it in the oven and bake it.

DL: Roast it.

JS: Yes. I know some people don't like the microwave but I love the microwave, so we can just microwave the fish. Don't overcook the fish.

DL: Cook in the microwave?

JS: My line is for fish is, "You already killed a beautiful creature. Don't kill it the second time."

DL: Exactly. In your cookbook, there are turmeric potatoes with green peppers.

JS: It's a very simple recipe. It's the way people cook in India on an everyday basis. They don't use 20 spices the way most people are starting to believe Indian food has. Essentially, you boil potatoes: Yukon Gold, or any variety of white potato. Boil them in the jacket, about 20 minutes for a good two, two-and-a-half-inch potato. You peel them, cut them into big chunks, then you heat the oil and sprinkle in the turmeric and salt. Pan-roast them, and when they're cooking, you cut up beautiful red, green, yellow, and orange peppers. Add them, and they all get the coating of the turmeric. It's so delicious. I love it like that with eggs in the morning or as a snack.

David Leite
David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. Leite also won a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.