East Meets West Meets Vegetables

Apparently jalfrezi curry—a quick sauté of vegetables in a thick, spicy tomato sauce—has surpassed chicken tikka masala as the most popular Indian dish in England, which makes the fact that it's almost unknown here in the U.S. even more surprising. Americans should get to know it better—it's easy and super adaptable to whatever vegetables and proteins you have on hand. The ideal weeknight meal, it seems to me.

The stories about its origin are legion—it's an eastern Indian dish, probably from Calcutta, which of course was the seat of English colonial trade for a long time and has a strong Chinese influence. One story is that it was concocted as a way to deal with the leftovers from British Sunday suppers—all that leftover meat and cooked vegetables were turned into a quick, spicy sauté. Another is that it was an Indianized version of a Chinese stir-fry. Both are plausible, and of course one doesn't necessarily contradict the other. (Of course, it could have just been invented in some London curry house, too, I suppose. Go diasporic restaurant owners.)

It only occured to me to make this because I had made a batch of paneer to use up a glut of milk, and someone gave me a green pepper—a capsicum, in British and Indian locution. So: paneer jalfrezi it was. Colorful, healthful, and versatile. I ate it with rice, but you could also do as Indians do and wrap it up in a flatbread for a satisfying lunch (naan or pita would work if you don't feel like making rotis).

Paneer Jalfrezi
Serves 3

You can substitute any protein for the paneer—if you use something raw (say chicken breast), cut it into strips 1x2" and sauté it till golden, remove it from the pan, and proceed with the recipe. If you use something cooked (leftover roasted or grilled meat), skip the sautéing and just add it in later. Of course you should feel free to skip the protein altogether and add some other vegetables: blanched green beans, cauliflower, broccoli—whatever your heart (or CSA share) desires.

To make paneer (which is seriously the easiest thing in the world): Place 2 quarts whole milk in a saucepan and bring just to a boil. As soon as it comes to a boil, add 3 TB lemon juice or white vinegar and turn the heat down to low. You'll see the milk curdle, with greenish whey separating from white curds. Empty the pot into a cheesecloth-lined colander (or use a clean tea towel) and when cool enough to handle bring the corners of the cloth together and twist tightly so that the most of the whey drains from the paneer. Lay the bundle, with the top still tightly twisted, on a cutting board you've placed in the sink, top with a plate and a weight for about 5 minutes. Now unwrap the paneer and use it.

You can also buy paneer at an Indian store, or substitute firm tofu (skip the initial browning).

1 batch of paneer, cut into 1" cubes
1 TB canola oil
1/2 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 c onion, sliced
2 tsp finely minced garlic
1-2 tsp finely minced ginger
1 green or red chili, sliced (to taste—you can even leave this out)
2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4-1 tsp red chili powder (to taste)
1 green pepper, sliced into strips
3 medium carrots, sliced on an angle
3 medium very ripe tomatoes, or 1 c canned diced tomatoes
1 perfectly ripe tomato of whatever color you'd like (mine was yellow), cut into thinnish wedges
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp kasuri methi (fried fenugreek leaves), if you have it (I didn't)

1. Cut the very ripe tomatoes in half and take out the core. On the big holes of a box grater set over a bowl, grate the tomato. This is an easy way to separate the pulp from the skin (discard the skin) and make a purée. It's a very Spanish trick that I use all the time now when I have VERY ripe tomatoes.

2. In a medium nonstick frying pan, heat 1/2 TB canola oil over medium high heat. When hot, add cubes of paneer. Allow the cubes to brown on one side, then flip them over. Keep doing this until each piece has 2 or 3 golden brown crusty sides. Remove to a plate.

3. Add remaining canola oil to the pan, along with cumin and nigella (kalonji) seeds. When these become fragrant, add the onion and sauté until transluscent. Add the ginger, garlic, and fresh chili (if using) and stir fry for 1 minute. Now add coriander powder, turmeric, red chili powder, and salt to taste and sauté until the spices have toasted and covered the vegetables, about 30 seconds.

4. Add the tomato puree, and allow the mixture to cook until thickened, about 5 minutes over lively heat (longer if your tomatoes were very watery). Now add the green pepper and carrots. Allow to cook for another 5 minutes until the vegetables are just cooked—not soggy.

5. Add the paneer, garam masala, kasuri methi (if using) and fresh tomato, and stir gently to combine. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes. Serve hot with rice, Indian breads, or stuff in a paratha or pita.



apematrix said…
Just made this, but had no turmeric – smoked paprika may not have been the best substitute, but it's a great quick recipe, thanks! I'll make it again and again, I think x
Hahaha my dad is obsessed with smoked paprika, so we'll just call it his version. ;-)
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