FOOD HONESTLY

Cooling curries when it's sizzling hot

Curries don't have to be rich and stodgy, says Meera Sodha. When the mercury rises there are lots of light, fresh veggie dishes and star salads you can try

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By Meera Sodha on

As much as I love cooking, I am a lazy cook in the summer: it’s too easy to be at the beck and call of a sunny day. 

Hot late nights and spontaneity go hand in hand: suddenly I am out late, or at a friends for a last minute BBQ or sipping a G&T in a pretty little corner of London. All of this enjoying life adds up to one thing: much less time spent in the kitchen.  

Although time is in short supply, what never disappears is my appetite or my love of fierce, big flavours and spices: I still crave Indian food, but of a different sort. 

What I don’t want is rich, hearty, stewed meat curries. Even cooking with meat can lose its appeal unless it’s quickly marinated and thrown on a grill. What I do want, more than anything, is all the exciting colourful vegetables that are at peak deliciousness in this time of year.  

At the market I’ll buy up a big bagfuls of different types of tomatoes, sweet enough to eat like cherries, or sunshine-yellow sweet corn, some crisp crunchy leaves and other greens, like beans, peas and mangetout. These are the bundles of vegetable-shaped joy that nature says we should be eating right now and none of which (thankfully) need much wrestling in the kitchen. 

Even cooking with meat can lose its appeal. What I do want, more than anything, is all the exciting colourful vegetables that are at peak deliciousness in this time of year

Nearly all the vegetables I’ll buy this time of year are multi-purpose, by that I mean they could be eaten fresh or cooked and so are unlikely to fester at the bottom of your fridge at the end of even the busiest week. Then, all I need are my ever-ready stalwarts: ginger, onions and garlic, a few pantry staples, like nuts, and finally, spices - always the spices - and I have my Indian summer toolkit. 

When it’s too hot to cook, I’ll make a salad. My favourite summer salad is the fennel and apple chaat with caramelised almonds from my new book. The crisp fresh apple works really well with sweet and crunchy fennel and even better with some delicious caramelised almonds and warming spices thrown in. With a slice of cheddar and some bread, it’s makes for a good and light supper. 

For a low-cook, high-reward number, I’ll make fresh matar paneer. Although the original matar paneer is a curry, my version of it is somewhere between a warm salad and a light curry. In it is paneer, a gorgeous Indian grill-able cheese, three types of beans, peas and as many juicy delicious tomatoes you can squeeze into the pan. I cook it to the point where the tomatoes go jammy and spoon over some yoghurt, so there’s just enough delicious sauce to mop up with hot naan bread. 

Finally, for friends and family, I’ll serve a pilau studded with lots of fresh garden vegetables like courgettes and broad beans, called ‘Gardener’s Question Time Pilau’. There’s something magnificent and grand about a pilau as a centerpiece: a big fragrant sharing dish for everyone to help themselves to. Depending on the number of people I’ll most likely boost this with a few other bits like some oven-roasted tandoori chicken, mint raita or perhaps some sprouted lentils quickly stir-fried in garlic and lemon and a lip-smacking pickle from the fridge. 

The best thing about all of these dishes is that they make the most of summer’s most delicious, quick-cooking vegetables, letting me make the most of being lazy in the summer. 

Meera's new book Fresh India: 130 Quick, Easy and Delicious Recipes for Every Day is out now. 

 

FRESH MATAR PANEER

This is an update of an ageing rock star of Indian dishes – matar paneer, or paneer and pea curry. I’ve kept the vegetables crisp and tender so they don’t surrender to mushiness: the result is a younger, edgier new kid on the block with a bit more attitude.  

Serves 4 as a main course 

  • Rapeseed oil
  • 550g hard paneer, cut into 1.5cm cubes
  • 6 cloves of garlic, crushed 
  • 400g ripe plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 11⁄4 teaspoons salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1⁄3 teaspoon ground turmeric 200g green beans, topped and tailed
  • 200g mangetout
  • 200g peas (fresh or defrosted) optional: 1 red chilli, finely sliced 
  1. Put a couple of tablespoons of oil into a frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the paneer and fry for around 4 minutes, until golden and crisp, turning every minute or so. Transfer the paneer to a plate using a slotted spoon. 
  2. To make the sauce, put another tablespoon of oil into the pan and, when warm, add the garlic. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes. Cook for around 6 minutes, until the tomatoes are just starting to become jammy, then add the salt, black pepper, cumin, chilli powder and turmeric. Stir to mix, cook for another minute, then take off the heat. 
  3. Bring a pan of water to the boil. When boiling, add the beans, cook for 2 minutes, then add the mangetout. Cook for another 2 minutes, pop the peas in for a final minute, then quickly drain, allowing the veg to dry off properly in their own steam. 
  4. Heat up the sauce and add the paneer to the pan. When both are hot, add the vegetables and stir to mix. Sprinkle over the sliced red chilli. 
  5. Serve with fresh hot chapattis or rice, and some plain yoghurt. 

GARDENERS’ QUESTION TIME PILAU 

I love to listen to BBC Radio 4 when I’m cooking: it’s a soothing backdrop to all the frenetic chopping, frying and clattering that can happen in my kitchen. Once upon a Gardeners’ Question Time, a member of the audience asked for suggestions for what to do with an overabundance of summer greens. I remember thinking that it was a good question, and made this dish as an answer: a bountiful pilau, substantial, flavoursome, but light enough for a summer’s evening. So if you’re reading this, Mr Trusty of Guildford, this is for you. 

NOTE: Only add the broad beans if you have the tenacity to shell them; if not, just add more peas. 

Serves 4 to 6 as a main course 

  • 300g basmati rice
  • 200g broad beans
  • 450ml hot vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 4cm cinnamon stick
  • 2 large onions, finely sliced 3cm ginger, peeled and grated 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2 green finger chillies,  finely sliced
  • 400g broccoli florets, 4cm across
  • 200g courgettes, sliced
  • 200g peas (fresh or defrosted) 
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 
  • 11⁄3 teaspoons salt (or to taste) 
  • 10g fresh dill
  • 10g fresh mint leaves
  • Lemon wedges, to serve 
  1. Wash the rice in a few changes of cold water until the water runs clear, then leave to soak for 20 minutes, or in warm water for 10 minutes if you can’t wait that long. In the meantime, remove the beans from their pods and place in a pan. Cover briefly with boiling water, then drain and place in a pan of cold water. Squeeze each one gently to remove its thick outer skin. 
  2. When the rice has soaked, make up the vegetable stock and pour into a deep lidded saucepan. Drain the rice, then add to the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 2 minutes, then cover with the lid, turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to rest and steam. 
  3. Put the oil into a large lidded pan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the cumin seeds and cinnamon stick. Leave to sizzle until fragrant, then add the onions. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the onions are translucent and softening but not yet coloured, then add the ginger, garlic and green chillies and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  4. Add the broccoli florets to the pan, stir to mix, then add 5 tablespoons of water and cover immediately so the broccoli can steam through. After 2 minutes add the courgettes and a couple more tablespoons of water, and after another couple of minutes add the broad beans, peas, black pepper and salt. Cook for another minute or two, then take the mixture off the heat and fold in the rice. You might need to delicately break up the clumps of rice using your hands. 
  5. Once the greens and rice are mixed, check the salt, then transfer to a serving dish. Tear up the herbs and sprinkle over. Serve with wedges of lemon and yoghurt or a raita, like the beetroot raita in my book. 

FENNEL + APPLE CHAAT WITH CARAMELIZED ALMONDS

This crisp and clean bunch of ingredients, mixed with some warming sweet spices, works together as tightly as the rhythm section of James Brown’s funk band. 

Serves 4 as a side 

  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 5 tablespoons rapeseed oil 100g flaked almonds
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • Salt
  • 1 lemon, plus 2 tablespoons 
  • Lemon juice
  • 2 medium bulbs of fennel 3 Braeburn apples
  • 1⁄2 a cucumber
  • 10g fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 11⁄4 teaspoons garam masala 
  1. Grab a pestle and mortar, and bash the fennel seeds until they’re coarsely ground. Next, put a couple of tablespoons of oil into a frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the almonds, stir- fry for a couple of minutes until they turn pale gold, then add the ground fennel seeds, ginger, honey and 1⁄3 teaspoon of salt. Stir-fry for another minute until caramelized. Carefully tip on to a plate and leave to cool. 
  2. To make the salad, fill a big bowl with cold water. Cut the lemon in half, squeeze the juice into the water, then chuck in the lemon halves, to stop the fennel and apple discolouring. Very finely slice (or shave on a mandolin) the fennel and put it into the lemony water. Slice the apples thinly and add them to the bowl. Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon, then slice it thinly and keep to one side. 
  3. Drain the fennel and apple really well, discard the lemon halves, and put the mixture into a serving bowl along with the cucumber and mint. To make the dressing, mix together 3 tablespoons of oil with the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, garam masala and 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt. 
  4. Crumble the caramelized almonds into the salad and pour over the dressing just before serving. Toss together using your hands or a pair of tongs, then serve. 

 

@meerasodha 

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