Friday, December 05, 2008

Kitchen Improv: Indian Spiced Cauliflower, Fennel and Red Lentil Stew

Anyone who knows me knows that I don't do a lot of improvising in the kitchen.  I like to follow recipes; I guess I'm not the biggest risk taker.  When I do create my own recipes, it usually involves a fair amount of testing and refining until I get it right.  But once in awhile,  a meal just magically comes together despite my skepticism, and last night was one of those nights.

It was getting towards the end of the week, and the fridge was looking a bit bare, but it did hold some cauliflower and fennel and half an onion.   In the freezer, there were cooked red lentils that were left over from my last pot of Indian soup (a recipe for curried red lentil and tomato soup with perfumed spice butter,  from my recent cookbook purchase "Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking" by Julie Sahni), and also, frozen peas.  In the pantry there were black mustard seeds, cayenne and cumin seeds, and an abundance of Garam Masala, plus there was ghee.  It wasn't long before dinner was on the table, and wow, was it good!

I was skeptical about combining cauliflower and fennel - I don't know why, but it seemed like a combination of flavors that could go either way, delicious or god-awful.   Thankfully, it was delicious.  What follows here is more of a guide than an actual recipe.  Serve it with some basmati rice and you're good to go.

One thing to note about red lentils - they cook much differently than the standard green or brown lentils, which generally hold their shape.  Red lentils cook a little more quickly, and develop a thick, creamy consistency as they cook - so they are perfect for a nice, thick stew like this one.  Also, don't be alarmed when your red lentils lose some of their color as they cook.

I wish I'd gotten a picture, but alas, my camera batteries were dead, so I'll just have to make more of this another time!

First, cook your red lentils.  I did this according to the recipe in the aforementioned cookbook, and basically it involves rinsing about a cup and a half of red lentils, covering with about 4 cups water and a pinch of turmeric, bringing to a boil and then simmering over lower heat, partially covered, for about 35 minutes or so.  Note:  skip the turmeric if you're not going to use the lentils for an Indian preparation.

Cut up half an onion into a small dice, plus a couple of cloves of garlic.  Set the garlic aside.  

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat about a tablespoon of ghee, butter or olive oil.   Over medium heat, saute the onion, stirring frequently, for about 10-15 minutes, until it's soft and nicely golden brown. 

Now, add to the pot:  about a teaspoon of cumin seeds, and about the same amount of black mustard seeds, plus a bit of cayenne, depending on how spicy you like it.  Keep stirring, and after a minute or so, add some chopped fennel and chopped cauliflower.  I used about 1 1/2 cups of each. 

Add the garlic and a generous sprinkling of salt, and keep stirring for about 5 minutes, and then, add some water - about enough to cover it all by half an inch.  Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes or so, until the cauliflower and fennel have started to become nicely tender.

Now it's time to add the lentils - I used what I had on hand, which was about 2 cups or so.  I also scattered about 3/4 of a cup of frozen peas into the mix, along with about a half teaspoon of Garam Masala.   Cook for another 5 minutes or so, and it'll be ready to serve.  It's nice when things turn out that way, isn't it?

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