I just found out about the cooking contest he is holding over at Meathenge yesterday, so of course, I had to jump in at the eleventh hour and think of something fun to toss into the fray.
The idea is to present a weekday dinner, something that I make often, something fast, tasty, filling, nutritious and delightful that requires no weirdo ingredients that cannot be found at the local grocery store.
Okay, so no fermented black beans, no Sichuan peppercorns and no galangal.
But, you know–it is me we are talking about. Even when I make meatloaf it has Jamaican jerk seasonings in it. And I am constitutionally incapable of making plain old fried chicken–I have to make garlic booger chicken instead, so this is where I fess up to the fact that even when I am in a hurry and starving half to death, and I need comfort food, I still make stuff that many Americans would consider weird.
Which is cool, because Zak doesn’t like plain food, and neither do I.
So, what do I throw down and make when I don’t know what else to make and I need something quick, hot and on the table in forty-five minutes or so?
I make Indian food.
To be precise, I make keema sookh and baigan bhartha.
Well, honestly, I make keema sookh, and something else, and last night, it was baigan bhartha.
I have posted about keema sookh before–it is a dry cooked curry of minced lamb. Well, you can make it with ground beef or chicken, but it isn’t as good as lamb. And since I nearly always have ground lamb in my freezer, it is no big thing to thaw some out, and come home and throw this dish together.
The recipe is variable. I always use one medium sized yellow onion, sliced thinly and browned to a rich mahogany color. I always use a fresh or dried chile pepper (or both), lots of garlic, (because garlic and lamb are wedded in so many cuisines it isn’t even funny) and fresh ginger. After that–everything is variable. The wet ingredients are standard in my masala mixture, but the dried spices–they vary with my mood, what is in my cupboard and how cold or hot it is outside.
Last night, I used white peppercorns, cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds with a shot of cinnamon. I ground all of the masala ingredients except the onions together in my Sumeet, and then prepped the vegetables.
The vegetables that go in the dish depend on my mood, what is in season and what is in the refrigerator. Green beans are most often included, because they taste really good when cooked to a tender crisp state with the lamb, and lo and behold, there were green beans in my fridge. New potatoes are also divine, cut into wedges and cooked in the meat, and since they were accounted for in the fridge, they also found their way in the dish.
One other thing–I usually put fruit in the keema sookh, near the end of cooking or on the plate as a garnish. The fruit is a typically Northern Indian touch–something that points to the Persian roots of much of North Indian cookery, and it adds yet another layer of flavor and color to the dish.
In the winter, I will cook it with golden raisins, and if they are in season, I will scatter pomegranate seeds over it, where they glisten like a constellation of garnets. Mangoes are great to put in just as the last of the water is boiling off.
Alas, there were no pomegranates or mangoes, but there were fresh peaches from the farmer’s market. They tasted as good as mangoes in the dish–the slight acidity added freshness and lightened the typical richness of the lamb, while the brilliant yellow awakened the green of the beans.
Finally–I always finish keema sookh with a minced fresh herb. If I have cilantro in the garden, cilantro it is. If I have mint–mint is perfect, because it goes so beautifully with the lamb. But today, I used the musky sharpness of holy basil–tulsi–which was just starting to show its purple blooms in my windowbox garden. In order to keep my basils growing all season, I pinch off blooms as they begin to appear–they are annuals, and if you allow them to go to seed, often they will stop growing. So, I pinch them back often and they reward me with more branches of fragrant leaves and flowers.
In this case, the tulsi was a great foil for the peaches–in fact, they tasted so good together, I am wondering if a sorbet is in order at a later date.
I also had eggplants and tomatoes. Instead of throwing them in the keema sookh, and thus making a dry dish wet, I decided to make them as the wet dish to go with the dry dish.
It is like this. When you serve a dry dish like keema sookh, you are supposed to serve a chutney, raita, or a wet curry with it to provide a contrast in texture. Rice, of course, is a given, but it is dry–so dry rice and dry cooked meat–nah–it is not so good. But a nice moist eggplant dish with tomatoes–ooh. How can that be bad? It would provide a great contrast, nice colors and a lovely flavor. And, in order to save time on preparation, I made enough sliced onions, and masala paste for both the keema sookh and the baigan bhartha at the same time.
The difference being that I added a bit chipotle chile to the eggplant, and added some smoked paprika, just because I had just bought some, it smelled nice, it gave a nice color to the dish and it smelled like it would taste great with it.
And it did. It gave the eggplant a completely different character and flavor from the keema sookh. Is it traditional? Nah. Do I care? No–not when it tastes that good.
How long does all of this take?
I put the basmati rice in the rice cooker. Two cups of it, along with three cups of water and a handful of sliced almonds. I close the lid, push the on button and walk away, knowing that I have about forty-five minutes to cook everything else before the timer on the rice beeps, and puts the machine on the “keep warm” cycle.
And if I am any longer with making the rest of dinner–it is usually only by about five minutes.
We end up with a dinner full of the voluptuous colors and intoxicating aromas of India that tastes better than the local restaurant, and is cheaper, too. And, faster.
And–here is the real kicker. If I have leftovers, and I almost always do–I can mix the rice in the meat and use it to stuff vegetables the next day. Yep. A classic is stuffed sweet peppers–I steam the peppers for a few minutes in the pressure cooker, just to soften them, then stuff them, and put their caps back on and steam them until they are heated through and then either serve them with a fresh mango chutney or cold leftover baigan bhartha on top. They are great that way. Courgette, eggplants or tomatoes can be stuffed the same way, though those I would bake in a pan with a bit of water in the bottom.
For the recipe for the keema sookh–just follow my link above–and vary it according to what you have in the fridge, what phase the moon is in, what you like and what is in season. I promise you, it will turn out nicely. The masala paste I used last night was made from six cloves garlic, one really hot serrano pepper, one 1″ cube fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1/4 teaspoon white peppercorns, 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon and a pinch of turmeric, all ground together into a paste. If you use a blender, or food processor, you will need to add about 1/8 cup of water, and you should probably process the spices in a mortar and pestle. (Doing it by hand only takes a couple of minutes if you and your mortar and pestle are on good terms.)
And since the eggplants and tomatoes are overabundantly in season, here is how I make just enough baigan bhartha for two people. I don’t do it the normal way, because I am abnormal. But my Pakistani clients back when I was a personal chef loved the stuff and could inhale huge amounts of it. I kind of wish I had some of the smoked paprika then, so I could have sprung that surprise on them. I bet they would have been all up in that innovation.
2 small (the size of my palm) or 1 large eggplant
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon garam masala paste as outlined above
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
pinch ground dried chipotle chile
1 handful cherry tomatoes, yellow and red, preferably, cut in half
1/4 cup water
salt to taste
minced fresh cilantro or mint for a garnish (optional)
Cut off the top and bottom of the eggplant. Cut into quarters and then into as thin slices as you can manage. The idea is to cut it very thin so it will cook down quickly. If you use large eggplants for this, after slicing them, you should salt them and set them in a strainer, to allow the bitter juice to leech out. After about twenty minutes, you should rinse them and pat them dry. In order to avoid this time consuming step, buy some of those cute little eggplants that are about the size of your palm, or the long thin Asian eggplants–they do not have the bitterness and you can ignore that step entirely and just slice and go.
Heat oil in a heavy frying pan–I use cast iron–and add onions. Cook, stirring, until onions are a nice mahogany brown color and very fragrant. Add eggplant slices and cook, stirring, until they just begin to turn transluescent. At this point, add in the masala paste, and cook for another minute or so, stirring all the while. Add in the paprika and the chipotle, and then the tomatoes, and cook until the eggplant really starts to break down into a paste and the tomatoes are starting to wrinkle up and look kind of weepy–they are releasing their juices.
Throw in the water, and allow it to boil off. Salt to taste and then turn off heat.
You can serve it hot, cold, or in between. It is a very versatile and forgiving dish, really. Garnish with the minced herbs if you want, or leave them off.
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