Thursday, March 06, 2008

Lentil Masala Curry, with Black-Eye Pea Variant

Despite the underwhelming reaction of the group this was first served to, it is (to me, at least) a delicious and exciting legume curry. The lentils I used are very European (sometimes called French or Puy or green), rather than Indian, but the curry itself is fully Indian. Punjabi to be specific. It is patterned after 'Rajma', the rich, full-bodied curry of red kidney beans. Those beans, by the way, originated in the New World then travelled to Europe and Asia (along with tomatoes, chili peppers, bell peppers, potatoes, green beans, and pumpkins, all of which are now standard Indian curry ingredients, as did chocolate, vanilla, peanuts, and [gasp] tobacco). Lentils, by contrast, are Old World legumes, and many different ones are eaten in India. Just not the one I used. The small dark-colored French or Puy lentils are generally available at health food stores, particularly in the bulk section. The regular, larger tan lentils can be used for this recipe, but I don't find them quite as interesting.

As a bonus this time, I've added a variant on the lentil curry recipe. It's based on black-eye peas, which are of Old World origin, and which are used, though not frequently, in Indian vegetarian cooking. An extra bonus, two paragraphs down is the method for a delicious and easy fresh chutney to accompany the curry.

Neither wine nor beer is traditional with Indian food, as alcohol is discouraged by one and prohibited by the other of the two principal religions on the Indian sub-Continent, Hinduism and Islam. But if you must indulge, consider beer rather than wine. Indian beers (e.g., 'Kingfisher', 'Golden Eagle") are strongly British influenced and tend to have a lot of hops, which were heavily used in the British-made 'India Pale Ale' to preserve it during the long, tropical sea voyages to India. A hoppy American microbrew, such as an I.P.A. by many makers or a Charles Adams ale, will be closest to what the British, at least, used to drink in India with their curries.

The recipe will make enough to serve six when accompanied by rice or an Indian flat bread like naan or chapati. Accompany also by yogurt, or a yogurt-based raita, and a fresh chutney made of coarsely chopped tomato (2 parts), onion (1 part), cucumber (1 part), and cilantro (1/2 part), seasoned with lime juice and salt to taste.

Lentil Masala Curry Tim

1 pound (about 2 cups) dry lentils, French green type, or Puy, preferred
2 large onions
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 large cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger
4 whole cardamoms
4 whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
2 to 3 teaspoons salt plus more to taste
1/2 cup yogurt (or half-and-half cream plus 1 tablespoon lime juice)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (save part for garnish)

Pick over then rinse the lentils. Cover them with two inches of water in a pan and bring them to a boil. The lentils will expand quickly. Stir them frequently and add water as needed so there is liquid just at the surface of the lentils. When tender to the bite, remove the pan from the heat.

Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the onions lengthwise, then cut across them several times. In a heavy pot, gently fry the onions in the butter and oil, stirring frequently, until golden brown (20 to 30 minutes). Finely mince the garlic and ginger, or pound them together in a mortar and pestle. Add them plus the whole spices to the fried onions, stir and gently fry several minutes more. Add the tomato paste and water, and fry a minute or so, stirring. Fry in the dry spices and salt, stirring, for several minutes. Lift the lentils out of their liquid (saving it) with a slotted spoon and add them to the onion and spice mixture.

Beat the yogurt lightly with a fork until smooth, and stir it into the curry. Add some of the liquid from the lentils or water, if needed, to give a medium thick, soupy gravy. Simmer, stirring frequently, several minutes. Taste, and add salt, if necessary. Remove from the heat and stir in about 3/4 of the cilantro. After ten minutes, stir again, taste, and adjust salt if needed. Make the taste just slightly salty, since the lentils will soak up more salt, and the curry will be served with unseasoned rice or bread.

Serve with unsalted rice, Basmati preferred (see blog posting of 1/26/08), or an Indian flat bread such as naan or chapati. Sprinkle the curry with the remaining chopped cilantro.

Black-eye pea curry variant

Use 1 pound of dried black-eye peas in place of the lentils. But after picking them over and rinsing them, soak them in water to cover by 3 inches for at least 8 hours, or until there is no hardness when you bite into several. Put them in fresh water and boil them gently, stirring occasionally, until tender to the bite. Otherwise proceed as for the lentil curry, except increase the turmeric to 2 tablespoons and the paprika to 1-1/2 teaspoons.


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