I swear I'm not always sick. Really. Although, guess what: Here I am, fighting off yet another cold. I mean, really? What gives?! I can't start the week like this, so I'm all about drinkin' the fluids, and sipping the green tea this morning, and poppin' the Zicam. I'm a big believer in listening to what your body is telling you--if you're tired, sleep; if you're hungry, eat; if you have the flu, go to bed and watch Law & Order re-runs and sappy WE Network movies while slipping in and out of consciousness. Things aren't exactly at that stage of bleck, but there is something I'm craving to feed my mini-cold, and I've got the ticket: Spice.
Over the weekend, we drove out to eastern Long Island to visit my Dad, Mike the butcher. He's heading to Florida for the winter in a couple of weeks, so my sisters and I converged upon him to cook him an early send-off meal and just generally gather to catch up and spend some time together. My Dad's garden this year was, wow, bursting! Over the last few months, he sent me home with more tomatoes and zucchini and herbs and peppers and beans than I could shake a pan at. And as it so happened, the garden was still giving this weekend. Dad found a half-dozen small to medium-sized, plump eggplants, and had them out on the counter when we arrived Saturday. My dad saw me eyeing them, threw an arm around my shoulder, and said, "You and your sisters ought to take them home," -- a suggestion he definitely didn't have to ask me twice.
I love eggplant. Love, love, love it. My grandmother used to combine cooked eggplant with chopmeat, parsley, egg, cheese, and tomatoes to make her tender, savory polpetti. My mother-in-law makes me her great layered, luscious parmesan for my birthday every year, and taught me to grill it with olive oil, garlic, and mint in the summer. I could bathe in baba ganouj, and love dicing, sauteing, and mixing them up with onion, toasted pine nuts, fresh bread crumbs, and a little Parmesan cheese and good olive oil to stuff inside thick-cut pork chops. But like I said, today I've got a different kind of necessitated craving, and as it so happens, I found a new book on my office floor that's got me wishing I could fast-forward to 5pm prep time. According to author Anjum Anand in her great cookery tome
Anjum's New Indian, the following recipe for Chicken Dhansak is an authentic Parsi dish that, for a long time, she kind of rolled her eyes at because it's ubiquitous on menus in the UK where she in part grew up. But then a trip to Mumbai changed it all. "It was sublime; flavorful but not too spicy, slightly sweet, but wholesome and served with brown rice... The gravy of a dhansak is made with lentils and often has pumpkin and eggplant..." Sold! This is exactly what I'm jonesing for. Spicy and flavorful, but on the gentle side. And as I've got these garden eggplants sitting right on my counter, and little sugar pumpkin on my stoop (not to mention a half-bag of red lentils in the cupboard), I'm all over this tonight. And thanks to a little ingredient serenditipity, I won't even have to run around to track down its components. Although on the whole, the dishes in this book are easily things that can be handled on a weeknight, there are some beyond-grocery-store spices called for. I'm all set on the dhansak, but on page 256 Anand lists a short but good group of websites where you can order things that she uses in abundance here, like tamarind paste, chapatti flour, asafoetida, and nigella seeds. I'm going to be subbing some things, like the pumpkin for the butternut squash, and also I'll be taking a chance on tamarind juice--I don't have paste and the recipe requires a lot of liquid, so I think this might be a good trade-off. At any rate... is it dinner time yet??
6 TBSP vegetable oil
1 medium-large onion, peeled, halved, and finely sliced
salt to taste
2 medium-large tomatoes, pureed
2 lbs chicken pieces, skinned
1 cup red lentils, rinsed well and soaked in water while you prepare and cook
4 small eggplants, halved lengthwise
1 lb butternut squash, peeled and flesh cut into large chunks
1 tsp tamarind paste, or to taste
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp brown sugar or garrery (optional)
handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
6 large cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 inch piece of fresh gigner, peeled,
2 tsp cumin seeds
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds, ground
1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds
1/4 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp pure red chile powder, or to taste
Using a spice grinder or good pestle andmortar, make a fine powder of the whole spices in the spice paste. Using a blender, make a find paste of the ginger and garlic with thise powdered spices and a small splash of water until smooth.
Heat theoil in a nonstick saucepan and fry the onion until well browned, around 8 minutes. Add the spice paste and salt and cook until all the moisture in th pan has evaporated, then fry the paste for another 2-3 minutes over low heat, stirring continuously. Add the tomatoes and a good splash of water, cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat or until the masala sauce is cooked and the oil starts to bubble at the sides.
Add the chicken and brown for a few minutes. Drain the lentils from their soaking water and add to the pan with 3 1/4 cups water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Add the eggplants, cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, then add the squash, If using. Cover again and cook until the chicken and vegetables are tender, another 10 minutes or so. Give the pan an occasional stir to make sure the lentils are not setting at the bottom.
Add the tamarind paste to taste, the garam masala, and sugar. Check the seasoning and, using the back of the spoon, crush some of the lentils to thicken the gravy. Add a splash of recently boiled water from the kettle if it is too thick. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.