Meatfree Monday: Tarka Dahl, Vegetable Pakora and Onion Bhaji

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At this time of year, we are all getting a little tired and more than likely our immune systems will be getting more than a little stressed even if you are taking your rose hip syrup. We need to ask a lot of our food, not only that it provides the vital nutrients that we need along with some good immune support, but we also want to feel warmed and comforted by it; there are not usually many raw salad takers in the run up to Christmas.

This is where Indian food and other spice laden foods come into their own. Until  a few years ago, I never really considered spicy food as having any degree of health benefits (and by that I don’t mean just food made to cater for the very drunk, leaving sober mouths feeling painfully singed, rather the fragrant spiciness that relies on combinations of a wide variety of spices), but this could not be further from the truth. Although this is changing, cancer rates (excluding oral and oesophageal) and deaths from dementia in India have been traditionally significantly lower than in other countries, even those classed as ‘developed’. There are many suggested theories to explain this difference, not least the prevalence of vegetarianism across the country, but the traditional consumption of a wide range of spices is arguably one of them. Turmeric, cinnamon, chilli, ginger, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and mustard to name but a few are all exceptionally strong anti-oxidants and will not only help to protect against heart disease, cancer, arthritis and dementia in the future, they will also help to ward off all those germs that are loitering around right about now. There’s also nothing quite like perfectly spiced food for fighting off that horrible achey feeling we all get just before we tip over from under the weather to properly ill; try this meal (the whole combination) if you’re feeling that way and even halfway through you’ll feel as if you have turned the corner. Your choice whether you go the whole hog and make your own naan bread, all I can say is that in the time it takes you to rip open the packet, and to preheat the oven, you may as well have knocked up your own. Try it once, and you’ll be convinced.

Vegetarian Indian Feast Recipe

Serves 6:

For the Dahl:

400g red lentils

5 whole tomatoes

4 cloves garlic

2 onions

2 tsps garam masala

1 tsp dried ginger

2 tsps cumin seeds

2 tsps coriander seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 red chilli

2 tsps turmeric

salt and pepper

Fresh coriander to serve

Start by crushing your garlic, then put your coriander seeds, cumin seeds and fennel in a pan and toast them for a minute or so or until you can smell the lovely fragrances. Take them out of the pan and put them into your pestle and mortar and grind them up thoroughly.

Soften the onion and chilli in a heavy bottomed saucepan, for around ten minutes, then throw in all the dried spices, including the ones that you ground up earlier.

Roughly chop your tomatoes, then throw them into the pan as well, with the garlic and the lentils. Cover them with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for around 20 minutes or until the lentils are loosing their shape, then check the seasoning and keep warm until your ready to serve them.

For the Onion Bhaji:

3 large onions, very thinly sided ( I use my mandolin)

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tbsp fresh chopped coriander

1 tsp turmeric

a good pinch of cayenne pepper

Around 120g gram flour (chickpea flour). If you can’t get it, buckwheat is a fairly good substitute.

Add the onion slices into a bowl and add a good pinch of salt.

Mix them up well, so that the slices separate nicely, then toss through the spices.

Stir through the flour and then add cold water, very slowly whilst stirring,  until you have a thick batter.

Drop spoonfuls into a frying pan filled with 2-3 cms of very hot oil. The usual shape is round, but I don’t like to deep fat fry and therefore make a shape more similar to potato cakes. Fry them for around a minute each side, then drain on kitchen paper, and keep warm in a warm oven.

For the vegetable pakora:

1 medium cauliflower, broken into florets

250g mushrooms

300g gram flour (again buckwheat will do as a substitute)

1 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground fennel seeds ( I toasted these with the cumin seeds and ground them myself)

2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp salt

350 ml (or thereabouts) of cold water

Unlike most recipes, I like to parboil my cauliflower first, only for about 2 minutes. Refresh under cold water and dry thoroughly so that the batter sticks.

Mix together all the dry ingredients, then slowly pour in the water until you have a thick batter.

Coat the veg in the batter (you will have to do this in batches) then fry as you did the bhajis. Drain on kitchen paper again and keep warm in the oven.

For the Naan:

375g plain flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

240 ml mix of milk and natural yoghurt plus 3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 clove crushed garlic

2 tbsp chopped coriander

Mix together your dry ingredients, with the coriander and garlic. Make a well in the centre.

Pour in the liquid (milk, yoghurt and oil) and gradually combine the dry ingredients. Knead for around 5- 10 minutes until you have a smooth dough, then leave to rest for about 10 minutes.

Separate the dough into 8 equal sized pieces, then heat a good frying pan.

Roll out each piece so that it is thin like a pizza base, then dry fry until nicely browned.

Keep warm with your other delights in the oven.

Serve all together with some cucumber grated into natural yoghurt, or keffir (if you’re serious about strengthening your immune system) and feel those germs retreating. Enjoy!

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