Vegetarian Indian cooking

Baigan Bharta, Saag Paneer, and Dal

As a vegetarian, I especially love Indian cuisine.  I was able to take a cooking class about a year ago that covered some basic techniques and recipes in Indian cooking.  I have never been to India myself, so I can’t speak to the authenticity of the recipes below, but I can say they still capture that exotic deliciousness you would find in an Indian restaurant. It is not as hard as you might think!

The basics

Ghee
To begin with, I have found that one crucial element of “authentic”-tasting food is the oil in which it is cooked.  Make sure you are using clarified butter, or ghee.  It is very easy to make and involves nothing more than boiling a few sticks of butter.  But you can also purchase it pre-made at your grocery store.

Spices
Visit any Indian specialty grocery and you will find a plethora of spices, but there are only a few basic ones for use in most recipes that you can obtain in any major grocery chain.  Garam Masala is a common blend of most major spices used in Indian cooking.  You can generally find it premade in grocery stores, or make it yourself.   The general recipe I have is:
3 bay leaves, 1/2 cup peppercorns, 1/3 cup cardamon pods, 10 cinnamon sticks, 1/4 cup cloves, 2 T coriander seeds, and 1/4 cup cumin seeds.  Roast them in a skillet for about 5 minutes, until they start to brown and are very fragrant.  Grind it all together in a coffee grinder.  This recipe obviously makes a huge amount so you may want to reduce it or plan to give some away!
In general, I highly recommend that you ALWAYS start with whole seeds, never buy pre-ground spices.  There is a very noticeable difference in flavor and grinding the seeds yourself adds no more than 1-2 extra minutes of cooking. Just toast the seeds a few minutes in a dry skillet and then crush in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle, like so:

Bread, etc
Many years ago, Mr. R. attempted to make some naan in our kitchen.  The results were ultimately not worth the effort (and mess) but with a few more years of experience in breadmaking under his belt, it might be worthwhile to try again.  I’ll report back when that happens ;).  In the meantime,  frozen naan can be purchased at most grocery stores.  Not restaurant-quality, but it’ll do.
In addition to bread, I usually make some long-grain basmati rice to accompany my dishes.  Not as healthy as whole grain rice I usually eat, but more authentic.

Recipes

Basic tomato-based simmer sauce
Most stores now carry jarred simmer sauces in their “international” aisle.  But compared to the real thing, I find them to be generally flavorless and filled with sodium, hydrogenated oils and other nasty stuff.  It is much more worthwhile, in my opinion, to just make them from scratch.

Ingredients

About 8 ounces fresh tomato, roughly chopped (or one package of cherry/grape tomatoes.  If you are a purist, the tomatoes can be seeded and peeled — but this is not necessary in Indian cooking)
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Fresh hot green chilies
1 cup cilantro leaves (as cilantro does not have a woody stem, it is okay to coarsely chop the leaves off directly down to the stems)
1 tablespoon freshly ground coriander
2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt

Puree all these ingredients and you have an excellent base for basic curries.
To continue from this base, first saute a couple bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and cardamon pods in ghee until fragrant.
Add some diced onions, cook until translucent.
Add the sauce, let simmer for a few minutes, and then toss in whatever you want in the curry — chickpeas, potatoes, cauliflower, paneer, etc.  Add salt to taste and serve with rice and/or naan.

Saag Paneer
Another spinach-based version of a basic simmer sauce.  This is also quite easy, healthy, and delicious!  Paneer is an Indian cheese that is available at most grocery stores, but probably cheapest at Indian specialty stores.  This recipe is adapted from one demonstrated during the Vegetarian India class at L’Academie de Cuisine.

Ingredients
8 oz paneer, cubed
1 lb spinach, washed and stemmed
1 C onion, finely chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 T ghee
1 T grated ginger
1/2 t garam masala
1/2 t coriander, ground
1/2 t cumin, ground
1/4 t turmeric
salt & pepper

Blanch and drain the spinach (or, just start with frozen spinach and let thaw).  Blend in a food processor with the green bell pepper.
Saute the onion and ginger in ghee.  Once soft, add the spices and saute for a few minutes.  Then add the pureed spinach and pepper, and a little bit of water.  Bring to a simmer, add the paneer, and simmer for a few more moments before serving.

Baigan Bharta
A great summer dish using vegetables from your garden, this recipe is also adapted from one demonstrated at L’Academie de Cuisine.

Note that this recipe calls for some Kashmiri mirch, the only ingredient that you may need to visist a specialty store for.

Ingredients
2 medium-to-large eggplants
3/4 C ghee
1 t cumin seeds
3/4 C onion, chopped
1 T grated ginger
1 t Kashmiri Mirch
1-1/4 lb tomatoes, chopped
2-4 jalapenos
1/3 C cilantro

Brush the eggplants with ghee.  Grilling them over fire to create a smoky flavor is nice, but roasting in the oven works too.  Skin should be charred and easily peel from fruit when done, about 10-20 minutes.  Remove skin and stem and coarsely chop.

Heat the ghee in a large skillet and begin browning some cumin seeds.  Add onion, ginger and Kashmiri mirch until onions are soft.  Add tomatoes and cook several minutes, until they are cooked down.  Then add the eggplant and chilies and simmer a few more minutes.  Season with salt to taste and garnish with cilantro.

Dal

Dal is a basic lentil stew that can be made with a variety of legumes — red lentils, yellow split peas, mung beans, etc.  I crave this very simple recipe on cold and rainy days.

Just take about a cup of lentils and cover generously in water — about 4 cups, adding more as necessary.  Add some salt and some turmeric, bring to a boil, then simmer about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the type of lentil you are using.  Red lentils cook more quickly, in about 30 minutes; yellow split peas up to an hour.  Keep an eye on them, testing every so often and adding more water as necessary.

You can also add to this recipe — at a minimum, I like to saute some cumin seeds and garlic in ghee to flavor the dal at the end.  You may also want to try adding sauteed onions, tomatoes, cilantro, etc.

Serve with rice.

It really isn’t difficult to enjoy Indian cooking at home, and it is a delicious way to add healthful ingredients such as legumes and spinach into your diet.

Voilà!

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4 thoughts on “Vegetarian Indian cooking

  1. Pingback: Rice | Bounteous

  2. Pingback: Easy weeknight chickpea-cauliflower curry | Bounteous

  3. Pingback: Homemade Paneer | Bounteous

  4. Pingback: Garlic naan and cilantro chutney | Bounteous

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