Meatless Monday: Aloo Mattar

I adore tiny French fingerling potatoes, especially when they are just dug from the earth and scrubbed of mud. The little bite-sized ones are amazingly sweet with the most lovely contrast between the earthy, slightly bitter skins and their creamy, nutty-sweet flesh.

When you boil them, their skins pop under your teeth, releasing the meltingly-soft interior, and make a symphony of texture in the mouth: snappy skin that goes tender as soon as the potato’s integrity is breached, contrasting with the yielding smoothness of the tuber itself. If you add in peas–fresh are great, but good frozen ones work wonderfully as well–you get the same sort of texture in the green vegetable: a pop of skin and a burst of flavor from the velvety soft flesh.

I extemporized this curry because I had bought these adorable tiny potatoes from Rich Tomsu at the farmer’s market and really wanted to feature them in a recipe that would make them shine. Peas and new potatoes are a classic combination–I grew up eating them with cream or evaporated milk, and sometimes tiny pearl onions.

I wanted to do a gently spiced Indian version of peas, tiny potatoes and a dairy product, so what I came up with was Greek yogurt and a tiny bit of cream. Only enough to help thicken the sauce along.

The main spice in this curry is, believe it or not, fresh turmeric root.

I have seen fresh turmeric root appearing in Indian grocery stores more and more often these days, and when I see it, I buy it up gleefully. I love the way it smells and tastes, and the fresh, tingling, lightly medicinal flavor and scent it imparts to curries is amazing. Besides, if you are careful, and don’t let them stay too damp so that they mold, you can keep the fresh rhizomes for up to a month in your fridge. So, if you like the flavor and color that fresh turmeric imparts to Indian and Thai dishes, by all means, pick it up.

And–if you have never tried fresh turmeric root and you see it in the store, get some. Try it! It is delicious, and is filled with anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. It is very, very good for you.

What does it taste like? Fresh turmeric has a lightly sweet, somewhat medicinal, flowery taste, a little bit like its cousin, fresh galangal, but not as strong. It is nowhere near as peppery and “hot” in flavor as its other cousin, ginger, It is pleasant, and the slight bitterness of flavor and lightly “dusty” scent that it has dried is not really present in the fresh rhizome.

You do have to wear gloves when you peel it–the powerful yellow coloring in it will stain fingers (it is used as a dye in India, Southeast Asia and China, particularly for Buddhist monk’s robes) after just a short contact with skin.

You can peel and grate it just like ginger, or if you have a good, strong food processor/spice grinder like my Preethi, you can just peel and roughly slice it and stick it in with the other spices and aromatics to be ground into a thick, highly scented, orangish paste.

I kept the spicing for this vegetarian curry fairly simple–I really wanted the fresh turmeric to shine. I used some coriander seed, a little fennel seed, some cardamom and a couple of peppercorns for kick, as well as a single garlic clove and a well-browned shallot.

The result was a lightly sweet curry, fragrant with spices in a thick, creamy, pale daffodil yellow sauce. It isn’t very saucy, because I wanted the peas and potatoes to take center stage, so I reduced the liquid so that it thickened and clung to the vegetables, leaving just a little bit of sauce in the bottom of the pan to drizzle over the rice.

I finished the curry with a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of chopped fresh mint from the porch garden. As cold as it has been, the mint is yet going strong.

The curry turned out very well–I know this for a fact because Dan finished his portion of it before he finished his rogan gosht, which is a favorite of his. I took that fact as a sign that this recipe is a keeper and will be appearing on my table again, probably in the near future.

So long as I can get Rich’s fabulous tiny potatoes, that is.

Aloo Mattar
Ingredients:

1 pound of the smallest French fingerling or other tiny potatoes, well scrubbed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon ghee
1 very large shallot, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
2 1/2 teaspoons coriander seed
6 green cardamom pods
3/4 inch cube (approximately) fresh turmeric root, peeled and sliced
8 ounces frozen peas, thawed
3/4 cup whole or 2% Greek style yogurt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
salt to taste
lemon juice to taste
1/8 cup minced fresh mint for garnish

Method:

Put the potatoes into a pot, cover with cold water, add the salt and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer until they are fully tender–about ten or fifteen minutes if the potatoes are truly small.

In the meantime, heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan. When it melts, add the shallot, and cook, stirring as needed, until the shallot is a dark golden brown color. While the shallots cook, grind up the spices from the garlic clove through to the turmeric root into a fragrant, orange-brown paste. When the shallots are golden, add the spice paste, and cook, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. Don’t worry if some of the paste sticks to the bottom of the pan–so long as they just brown and don’t burn, this will only add flavor to the finished curry.

Add the peas, the yogurt and the heavy cream. Drain the cooked potatoes and add them to the pot, and cook, stirring, until the curry begins to thicken. As soon as you add the yogurt and cream, start scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan into the sauce. The sauce should color fairly quickly to a pale yellow hue.

Keep cooking the curry until the sauce reduces and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon pretty heavily. The color will deepen slightly to a pale jonquil tone. Remove immediately from the heat, stir in salt as needed, add the lemon juice to your taste and stir in the mint leaves.

Serve immediately with steamed basmati rice.

The leftovers from this dish rock–the turmeric flavor only deepens overnight in the fridge, and the reheating melds all of the spices together beautifully.

6 Comments

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  1. When adding peas to a curry or stir fry I don’t usually bother thawing them first. Should I? I figure that they’re so small that they won’t take much heat from the pot and will easily and safely heat up in less time than the dish will be ready.

    Comment by John — October 19, 2009 #

  2. Dear Barbara,

    I live in New Delhi, and am a long time reader of your blog. I have never commented before, but I just wanted to say how much I have learned from your writing. Even though I grew up watching my mother cook, and cook every day, Indian food takes on a whole new life under your hands :)

    So thank you, and as a small offering in return for all the many many gifts of food and technique you have given me over the years, here is a very simple fish recipe, cooked in mustard paste, from Bengal, in eastern India:

    Shorshe Maach (Mustard Fish)

    This is a traditional recipe from Bengal for that most revered of all
    fish – Hilsa, Illish. I do not know what this fish is called in
    English, but you can read about it here
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilsa. It will work with any oily fish.
    The fish must be very fresh that is all.

    For 8 pieces of fish: Rub the fish pieces with a little salt and
    turmeric on both sides and set aside for about 10-15 minutes.

    Meanwhile you start doing the following:

    Take about 1-2 heaped tablespoons of mustard seeds and soak them in hot
    water for a minute or so. There are several kinds of mustard seeds we get here, I use the larger black mustard, but you can also use the smaller red mustard if that if what you find. Then drain and grind them into a smooth
    paste with 1 or two or three (depending on how hot you like your food) large green chilies. While you can of course do this in
    your Preethi (which in India is called a mixie ;), I grind by hand
    because hand grinding presses the oil out of the seeds. It also takes
    hardly any time.

    Chop 4 tomatoes roughly.

    Now, in a flat saucepan, shallow fry the fish on both sides, till it
    is golden. For hilsa, because the flesh is so delicate this takes
    barely a few minutes, you would have to judge for the fish you are
    using. The point is to fry it just till the fish seals and turn
    golden.

    In a pot, put two tsp of mustard oil and when it is hot put in 1 tsp
    of Nigella seeds. When they pop, put in the tomatoes, sprinkle salt
    and turmeric powder. Fry the tomatoes till they have cooked through
    and become like a mush. Then, put in the the ground mustard paste and
    fry for a few minutes. Then put in 5 to 6 slit green chilies. Simply
    slit the chilies down the middle and put them in. Since you are not
    chopping them up and not using any red chili powder, the only heat in
    the dish comes from these. So don’t worry about using more than this
    if you want. Then pour in about 1 cup of water and bring this whole
    thing to a boil. turn it down and gently slide in your fish pieces.
    Simmer the fish for a few minutes till it completely absorbs the
    flavour of the curry. Two minuets before you take it off the heat, put
    in 1 handful of chopped fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. Serve with
    rice.

    The mustard is not an overpowering flavour at all. It is strong but delicate :)

    Thank you again,
    Aarti

    Comment by Aarti — October 20, 2009 #

  3. Aari–thank you so much for those kind words–I am always touched when I hear from people who tell me that I have helped them cook. I am doubly touched that one who lives in New Delhi would say so.

    And thank you for the recipe–I will make it sometime and present it in my blog, and credit you.

    You know, I was taught a variation on this recipe by Tanvir, the husband of the couple I used to cook for when I lived in Maryland. He is from Bangladesh, but he told me his recipe was Bengali–and it is very similar to yours. He used less mustard, and he added well browned red onions, some garlic and fresh ginger to the dish.

    But the turmeric and salt–that was exactly the same–and I think he used some cumin seeds with the mustard seeds, too.

    I remember making a variation of his recipe for the owners of the restaurant where I worked last year, as a model of the sort of dishes I could make with a real stove so I could do real sauteed dishes. They were blown away by the brightness of flavor the fish had.

    Thank you for giving me this recipe–it means much to me when my readers share.

    Blessings to you. You have given me an incomparable birthday gift.

    Comment by Barbara — October 20, 2009 #

  4. Hi Barbara! Your blog is always on my must visit list, though to my shame I always forget to cook anything from you, because I just get bogged down in the joy of reading about your cooking processes.

    But about fresh turmeric root!
    My father had major heart surgery in 2001, which was going to leave him with an extremely large scar down the middle of his chest. The Chinese lady nurse who was helping him change dressings told him that rubbing fresh turmeric on the scar would help it heal.

    He did, and for 6 months he had stained fingers and a stained chest. But it worked, bu god. His scar is so pale and much less noticeable then other people who have had the same operation, and his healing time was much less.

    As well as being delicious, turmeric heals the ill! :)

    Comment by Erinna — October 22, 2009 #

  5. Oh those French fingerling potatoes look SO cute!! My husband loves potaoes,bu isn’t too fond of the peas available here in the regular grocery stores(he finds it a tad too sweet). So,I normally pick up the peas too from the Indian store for our curries.
    BTW-you must try the fresh peas chutney that my MIL taught me-it’s different:
    http://bonnenutrition.blogspot.com/2009/05/mung-dosas-and-green-peas-chutney.html

    Comment by Sweta — October 23, 2009 #

  6. Oh those French fingerling potatoes look SO cute!! My husband loves potatoes, but isn’t too fond of the peas available here in the regular grocery stores(he finds it a tad too sweet). So,I normally pick up the peas too from the Indian store for our curries.
    BTW-you must try the fresh peas chutney that my MIL taught me-it’s different:
    http://bonnenutrition.blogspot.com/2009/05/mung-dosas-and-green-peas-chutney.html

    Comment by Sweta — October 23, 2009 #

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