Cooking Indian and Vegetarian–Delicious!

Red Lentil Stew with Vegetables 1I’ve often told my students that I could easily become a vegetarian if I lived in India. I love the way that country’s cooks turn humble ingredients like okra, potatoes, eggplant, spinach, and much more into irresistible temptations. They season vegetables with fragrant spices, combine them with cheeses like paneer, or enrich them with cream, to ensure that they are packed with flavor.

So, I was intrigued while in Paris this January by an article that I spotted in a popular French magazine on Indian dishes made with dahl. The story included basic directions for using red lentils in soups, stews, and side dishes. I tucked the article into my suitcase, and once home, tried some of the recipes. Over the past month I’ve made the red lentil stew with winter squash and cauliflower at least a half dozen times, tweaking it at each try.

This dish is prepared by simmering lentils and onions with curry, ginger, and cumin for 20 minutes. During this time the dahl lose their bright coral hue and break down into a rough puree. Then, cubed butternut squash, cauliflower florets, and baby spinach leaves are added, and the mixture cooked a few minutes more. The thick, rich stew is delicious offered with garnishes of yogurt and cilantro. I’ve served it as a main course with warm nan, and have ladled it over brown rice, then added curried roasted cod fillets. I’ve also thinned the mixture with extra water and enjoyed it as soup. Here’s a recipe that’s a winner on many fronts–it’s inexpensive, uncomplicated to assemble, and, oh yes, definitely vegetarian!

Red Lentil Stew with Butternut Squash and Cauliflower
2 cups cubed (3/4 in dice) butternut squash (see note)
2 cups cauliflower florets, halved if on the large size (see note)
2 tbsp canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 tsp curry plus a few pinches extra if desired
1 1/4 tsp dried ginger
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp salt plus more if needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red lentils (see note)
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 cups baby spinach leaves, packed

1 cup Greek-style yogurt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1. Fill a large saucepan or pot 2/3 full with water and set over high heat. Bring to a boil and then add the cubed butternut squash. Cook until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife, about 6 minutes. Remove the squash from the pot with a slotted spoon to a colander and place under cold running water to cool. Add the cauliflower to the pot of water and cook until just tender when pierced with a knife, about 3 minutes. Remove and drain in the same way. Set vegetables aside.

2. Heat the oil in a 3- to 4- quart saucepan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the onions and cook, stirring until just beginning to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, and add curry powder, ginger, cumin, salt, and 2 to 3 grinds of black pepper. Stir for 30 seconds and then add the lentils, garlic, and 4 cups of water.

3. Return pan to the heat and bring mixture to a simmer. Lower heat, cover and cook at a simmer until the lentils start to break down and thicken the mixture, 20 to 25 minutes.

4. Stir in the butternut squash and cauliflower. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, on medium-low until the vegetables are heated through and very tender, 6 to 10 minutes. (Stew can be prepared 2 days ahead to this point; cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat, stirring, over low heat.) Add the spinach, and stir 1 to 2 minutes until it wilts. Season with more salt and several extra pinches of curry if desired.

5. Ladle the lentil stew into soup bowls and garnish each serving with a big dollop of yogurt and a generous sprinkle of cilantro. Serves 4 as a light main course or as a generous side dish. Eat with a spoon or a fork.
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2014

Note: Many supermarkets in my area sell butternut squash that is peeled, a big time saver. Many stores also sell packaged cauliflower florets.

Note: Red lentils tend to lose their bright color and break down while cooking. French green lentils tend to hold their shape better.

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