Monday, February 23, 2009

dinner on the cheap: an indian feast

I try to eat meatless dishes a few nights a week, but I don't typically cook vegetarian when people come over. I'm not sure why, exactly. Somehow serving meat seems more special, even though it's something most people eat every day without even thinking about it.

Last weekend, our friends Ajla and Devin came over for dinner. They are both vegetarian, so it finally forced me to come up with a meatless menu. I wanted to make something interesting that also could stand on its own--no meat dishes with extra veggies to hide the fact that the protein is missing. And no icky faux meats or tasteless tempeh.

Luckily, Ajla and Devin are adventurous eaters (she took me to an Afghan restaurant recently that was fantastic) so I started to think about types of cuisine that I don't typically cook: Indian was the first thing that came to mind. After an inspiring trip to Kalyustan's, a gem of a market in Murray Hill, A.K.A. Curry Hill, I left with a bag of spices, chai, lentils, and other Indian treats, all under $20.

I also have sort of an ongoing personal quest to get Ajla to cook, specifically salad dressings and other easy things she can make instead of ordering in or going out to eat. She's definitely coming along--she says she's added some soups and hummus to her repertoire. And after last weekend, now she can add Indian. (At least I think so...she mainly stirred things and helped me clean up broken glass when I accidentally dropped my wine glass. Good times.)

On the subject of Indian food being cheap, it's definitely a low-budget way to eat if you have a few staples already on hand: namely spices. For this menu, I used tumeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne, and garam masala. If you have none of these, it might cost a bit. But if you already have a well-stocked spice rack, everything else came in under $30--which, for four people (with leftovers), is a steal.

Vegetarian Indian feast
Mango with spicy salt and sugar
Chutney and goat cheese with aloo paratha
Yellow dal
Indian baked rice
Indian spiced cauliflower and potatoes
Chai tea

Yellow dal

Smitten Kitchen calls this recipe (adapted from Ruta Kahate) "everyday yellow dal." It's pretty foolproof to make--just yellow split peas, spices, and a red onion--but the time involved would make this a weekend or Sunday night dal in my book. It's really all in the simmering, which takes a good 45 minutes. If you're making this menu, I'd get this dish started first and then work on the other ones while it cooks.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

1 cup yellow split peas, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
1 large tomato, cut into 8 wedges
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 medium red onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
5 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tsp. coriander seeds, finely ground
3/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/4 cup minced cilantro leaves
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter (I added an extra tablespoon, making it 2 Tbsp.)
1 tsp. salt (this was not enough salt for me, I would taste as you go and add extra)

Instructions: Drain the dal (split peas) and place in a large saucepan. Add the tomato and 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until peas are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Pick out any tomato skins and whisk dal to emulsify it. Keep warm over very low heat.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the cumin seeds, covering the pan with a lid or splatter screen. After the seeds have stopped sputtering, add the onion and saute over medium heat. About 3 minutes later, add the garlic and saute until most of the onion has turned dark brown, about 5 minutes altogether. Add the coriander, turmeric and cayenne, stir and pour mixture over the dal. Add the cilantro, butter and salt to the dal and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve hot.

Indian baked rice
This dish, from Gourmet, was the sleeper hit of the night. It tasted like restaurant rice: perfectly steamed, aromatic, and with just enough seasonings to keep it from being bland.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
2 1/2 cups basmati rice (19 oz.)
5 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 small jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
1 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
4 cups chicken broth (or water), heated

Wash rice in 6 or 7 changes of cold water in a large bowl until water is almost clear. Drain in a large sieve 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy ovenproof pot over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook almonds, stirring frequently, until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, then add onion to pot and cook over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, until pale golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, jalapeño, garam masala, ginger, and salt and cook, stirring frequently, 1 minute. Add rice and cook over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, 6 minutes. Add broth and simmer briskly, uncovered, until top of rice appears dry, about 8 minutes.

Cover pot and bake rice in middle of oven until tender and liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand, covered, 15 minutes. Taste and add extra salt, if needed. Serve sprinkled with almonds.

Indian spiced cauliflower and potatoes
From Smitten Kitchen via Gourmet, this is a nuanced dish full of deep, layered flavors, but it comes together very easily. The roasted cauliflower and potatoes get tossed with an aromatic mixture of onion, garlic, jalapeño, and ginger. One tip on doing this ahead of time: you can roast your veggies (I wouldn't do it any earlier than the day you plan to eat them), set them aside, and then add them to the hot oil and aromatics when you're ready to serve them.
(Serves 4 to 6 people)

1 (1 3/4-lb) head cauliflower, cut into 3/4-inch-wide florets
1 1/4 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds (I used ground cumin)
3/4 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp. minced fresh jalapeño, including seeds
2 tsp. minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 cup water

Put oven rack in upper third of oven and place a shallow baking pan on rack. Preheat oven to 475°F.

Toss cauliflower and potatoes together in a bowl with 3 tablespoons oil, cumin seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Spread in hot baking pan and roast, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is tender and browned in spots and potatoes are just tender, about 20 minutes.

While vegetables are roasting, cook onion, garlic, jalapeño, and ginger in remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until very soft and beginning to turn golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Stir in water, scraping up any brown bits from bottom of skillet, then stir in roasted vegetables. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes.

The lemon juice in this recipe is not traditional, but I like to thin the yogurt a bit and it adds a nice acidity. Serve this on the side to cool everyone's mouths off.
(Serves about 4 people)

1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped seeded English hothouse cucumber
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
optional: 1/2 lemon, juiced

Combine all ingredients in a bowl; mix.


The Single Gal said...

Thank you for this! I love Indian food but sometimes the recipes are really intimidating. I have lots of veggie-minded friends + I'm going to make all of these for them - it sounds like it was delicious.

Daniel said...

Love Indian food, but the average restaurant is high-volume, low-quality, turning out heavy dishes that all taste the same.

The solution: make Indian food at home! Or, in my case, marry a woman with adventurous vegetarian friends who inspire her to make Indian food at home. Thanks Ajla and Devin!

Lisa said...

TSG: Thanks! Let me know how it turns out!

Daniel: Yeah, I think in a lot of Indian restaurants (especially in our neighborhood) the entire menu comes out of one pot.

Jennifer Henry said...

Oh, I love these, and can't wait until my Mother-in-Law leaves in 2 weeks so I have time to try them without being watched like a hawk!

(OMG, she's not even HERE yet (3 more sleeps) and I'm looking forward to her departure already).

Lisa said...

Oh, Jennifer, my sympathies! :(

Anonymous said...

This looks great! I use some variation of those same spices that you mentioned when cooking North Indian food - turmeric, red chili powder, coriander, cumin and garam masala. Definitely the key spices! Looking forward to reading more of your recipes.

Lisa said...

Thanks, Nithya! Wow, coming from you that is a real compliment. I am going to raid your site for recipes next time I cook Indian, now that I have a better-stocked spice rack.


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