May 15, 2013

Indian cuisine: Make a hash of it

By JOE YONAN The Washington Po

Simply put, Indian cuisine presents some of the most satisfying meatless dishes of any in the world, which is why in my relatively short time as a vegetarian I've become something of a regular at Rasika West End in Washington. But I want to be just as comfortable making Indian dishes at home as I am ordering them out, so I've been studying up. As intimidating as Indian cooking can seem, given its beautiful layering of spices and sometimes hard-to-find ingredients, diving in doesn't need to be difficult.

I started the way I usually do, with a seasonal vegetable -- in this case, spring peas -- and the desire to do something different with them. One of my favorite Indian dishes is the classic matar paneer, made with that creamy-chewy cheese (paneer) and green peas (matar) plus a pungent sauce of tomatoes, ginger and a raft of spices. But I don't want to suggest making your own paneer, even though it's as easy as ricotta, because on a weeknight, who's going to do that? For that matter, who has time to track down paneer? Thankfully, it's much more available than it used to be, and my neighborhood Whole Foods Market stocks tidy little packages of it in the dairy section. (In a pinch -- or for vegans -- extra-firm tofu subs nicely.)

What about those spices? A well-made blend can capture the essence of a culture's cooking, so when I looked at a host of classic matar paneer recipes in developing my own, I kept the garam masala and jettisoned everything else. Garam masala, aromatic and complex (and also available in supermarkets), does the layering for you.

As much as I love eating this and other Indian dishes with plain white basmati rice or nan, I wanted a more interesting starchy base -- not a grain but another vegetable. I decided on a sweet potato hash, which comes together quickly in a separate pan thanks to one of my standby kitchen tools: a box grater.

PANEER AND PEA CURRY WITH SWEET POTATO HASH

Servings: Four

Look for paneer in the dairy aisle and garam masala in the spice aisle of any grocery store that has a good ethnic food section, or, of course, at Indian markets. From Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, author of the upcoming "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook" (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, chopped

11/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and grated

Sea salt

8 ounces paneer, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (may substitute extra-firm tofu, drained)

3-inch piece ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons garam masala

2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted peas (about 9 ounces)

1 cup no-salt-added canned crushed tomatoes, with their juices

1/4 cup low-fat coconut milk

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add half of the onion and half of the garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir in the sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Cook the sweet potatoes, stirring and scraping them from the pan occasionally, until they are browned in spots and tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Sprinkle the paneer pieces with salt. Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a separate large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the paneer and cook for a few minutes, until deeply browned on one side, then turn the cubes over to brown deeply on the second side.

Reduce the heat to medium. Pour in the remaining tablespoon of oil, then stir in the ginger and garam masala. Cook, stirring frequently, until the ginger is tender and the garam masala has bubbled and bloomed. Stir in the peas, the tomatoes and their juices and the coconut milk. Once the mixture starts bubbling around the edges, taste, and add salt as needed. Cook until the peas are tender and the flavors have melded, about 5 minutes.

Divide the sweet potato hash among individual plates. Spoon the paneer-pea curry on top. Serve hot.

 

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