Saturday, 7 April 2012

Vegetable Madras Curry

I recently had the urge to go vegetarian when I went to the supermarket and everything in the meat section was overpriced. And I mean even the lousiest imaginable cuts. I am not counting pennies, but I do respect my budget, and these prices were completely absurd. Besides, I can't deny the health and ecological benefits of reducing meat consumption (I may enjoy meat, but I am nowhere near deluded enough to think we can keep eating it at the rate we do without causing serious harm to the planet). And while I am lucky that my boyfriend eats tofu willingly, there is only so much soy curd I can cook in the same week before he'll start asking for a bit of variety, which is perfectly understandable.

I had a lovely eggplant in the fridge and a can of giant fava beans that had been sitting in my pantry for a while, so I improvised a vegetarian curry that contained no tofu whatsoever. A vegetarian curry does not have to contain a meat substitute to be delicious and nutritive. After all, isn't the word "vegetarian" derived from the word "veggie"? Time to make them the star of the show, don't you think?

A Madras curry is a thick, red stew, spiced with chile, tumeric and ginger, and given a sour kick with lemon or lime juice, or vinegar (but not both!). It turns out that although Madras curry was not invented in the south of India, but in the kitchens of England, it respects the culinary traditions of the region it's named after: it's hot! In fact, it seems to me that the further south you go in India, the spiciest the local cuisine gets. That region is also mostly Hindu, so it's safe to say that they would cook vegetarian curries.

I am not sure whether or not they have eggplants in southern India, but a veggie curry generally contains one (for lack of a better word) beefy vegetable, such as sweet potatoes, turnips, etc., that will take well to being slowly cooked in a spicy sauce, and other veggies to complement it. Eggplant is great in curry because it gets very tender and silky, and it absorbs the flavors of the sauce (but if you do not like eggplants, use carrots, or other firm root vegetables, like parsnip). You can either leave the skin on or peel them; if you do peel them, they will break apart and make your curry very saucy.

I added beans because I wanted a bit of protein in this dish. Giant fava beans were what I had on hand, and they are definitely meaty, but red kidney beans would have worked great here as well (though you can skip the beans entirely if you wish: I just loved the toothy-bite in contrast to the eggplant's texture).

1 pound eggplant
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 (19 ounce) can fava or red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 (18 ounce) can diced or crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup Madras curry paste
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, finely chopped
1/2 fresh chile, finely chopped
1 lemon or lime, juiced
Peanut oil or ghee
Plain yogurt
1 small bunch fresh cilantro leaves
Lemon wedges

Cube the eggplant and place in a colander. Sprinkle with salt, toss around and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water and set aside. Preheat a large pan over medium-heat. Fry the garlic, ginger and chile in some peanut oil or ghee, until the garlic is lightly colored, about 3 minutes. Add the onions and the bell pepper, and fry until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the curry paste and mix well to get everything coated. Add the eggplant and cook, tossing around, until lightly browned on a few sides, about 5 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, stir in the beans and add 1 cup of water and the lemon juice. Give a few good stirs to mix and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to simmer, and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender. Serve over basmati rice, garnished with cilantro leaves and lemon wedges, dotted with plain yogurt to taste.

I do not usually expect get a success on the first try of a recipe I create in the spur of the moment. But this curry was heavenly! Spicy (but not too hot), tangy, with an awesome mix of textures.

I read that you can also use 1 can of coconut milk instead of the water, if you want a creamier version of the curry; something I shall experiment with as soon as I get a chance. I tried it, and though it makes the curry softer on the palate, it doesn't change much to the overall taste. Personally, I prefer my original version, but adding the coconut milk might be a good idea for those of you who are more sensitive to the spicy heat.

I tried it with tofu and with chicken (both versions were delicious, especially with chickpeas!), but the eggplant was so melt-in-your-mouth tender and tasty that it is still my favorite version. It actually makes me quite curious to try my other curries with this veg!

Like with most curries, I find something cold and slightly fruity is the best kind of drink to wash the spicy bites down with. Try a light beer, or a surprisingly nice Italian white wine I recently discovered: Soave. Awesome funky bottle and it tastes great with almost everything!

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