11 January 2011

Karma chameleon

There are several things I can say about Indian cuisine, chief among them that it is, almost without exception, both delicious and unphotogenic.

Through some mysterious alchemical process stews and braises, purées and fritter, unwanted cuts of meat and boring winter vegetables alike are saved from ubiquity with a deft addition of chilies, ginger, and a few ingredients from the spice cabinet, but the resulting dishes are often smooth and monochromatic—not the best fodder for the camera.

Take cabbage, for example. A beloved staple of our winter table, cabbage nonetheless tends to tumble into the same meals again and again. There's the braised cabbage with carrots, made no less than a dozen times a year. Slaw of a pseudo-Asian variety is commonly thrown together with the occasional orphaned quarter, and to heck with lettuce—a taco just isn't a taco without finely-shredded cabbage on top. Add to that the periodic dabbling with kimchi recipes and regular meals of cabbage and mushroom stir fry, and I sometimes think I should turn my patio into a petite cabbage farm.

Indian tomato sauce

A few weeks ago, I decided to expand my cabbage repertoire with an Indian dish. I had experimented briefly with curried cabbage of several varieties a few years back, and quite frankly, they left me cold. Not so this time! Using mostly pantry ingredients, thinly sliced cabbage is braised in a curried tomato broth, resulting in a dish that is spicy, a bit crunchy, and colorful.

The two things that take Indian food from an occasional weekend undertaking to a regular weeknight meal are mise en place and a well-stocked pantry. A few items uncommon in Western pantries, such as coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and cardamom pods will make it easy to make most curry powders—and it's easy to leave out an ingredient here or there when something is missing. Making the curry powder and chopping the vegetables makes the composition of the dish a snap, giving you time to prepare rice, wash the dishes, and start thinking about dessert.

pre-curry powder

Unlike many Indian dishes, this one is pretty. The tomatoes, the turmeric-stained cabbage, and the peas make a lovely rainbow of red gold and green.

Last night I scribbled notes as I hummed dated New Wave singles and puttered in the kitchen. I whipped up spiced rice and dal, read a few pages of Murakami, and washed half of my dishes. I kept an ear open for the timer while I watched a basketball game, and I feverishly finished the last few minutes of cooking, an hour late and famished. I snapped some quick photos and sat down to quiet my complaining stomach.

It wasn't until later that I loaded the photos and looked at them.

curried cabbage and tomatoes

Red, gold ... and no green.

I forgot the peas.

So, let it be known: if you don't have peas in your freezer, this meal is delicious without. If you are really, really hungry, polling suggests that you might not even notice that they're missing. Do add them, though, if you have them.

Curried Braised Cabbage with Tomatoes and Peas
If you find good cabbage and good tomatoes at the same time, feel free to replace the canned tomatoes with 3-4 fresh chopped tomatoes (you may need to add a couple tablespoons water from time to time). In the winter, though, canned tomatoes are quite nice.

For the curry powder:

½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
6 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
3-4 cardamom pods, or ¼ teaspoon seeds
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
pinch fenugreek (optional)

For the cabbage:

2 tablespoons ghee, vegetable oil, or 1 tablespoon each butter & oil
½ medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cayenne (more or less, to taste)
1 - 14.5 ounce can whole or diced tomatoes, with their juice (or 3-4 whole fresh tomatoes)
½ head cabbage, halved and thinly sliced
1 cup frozen green peas (keep frozen)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)

To make the curry, combine the ingredients in a mortar or spice mill and grind well; set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large pot over medium-high heat. Fry onions until translucent. Add garlic, turmeric, cayenne, and curry powder; stir until fragrant and beginning to stick to the pot, 1-2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and juices and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until sauce is thickened and fat separates, 15-20 minutes. Add shredded cabbage and mix until well coated with sauce. Partially cover and simmer about 15 minutes more, until cabbage is cooked but still a bit crunchy; add water by the tablespoon if dry. Add peas and cook 1-2 minutes, just until heated through. Add salt and cilantro. Serve over rice.

Serves 4 with another Indian dish, or two generously

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