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Indian kootu cleans the produce bin

After the celebration comes the catharsis — that inevitable literal and figurative purging following the holidays.

My family, like many others, spent part of the New Year’s weekend taking down decorations, packing up ornaments and clearing the clutter that comes with seasonal giving and receiving. The refrigerator needed similar attention. A return to lighter meals is just one reason for making what I’ve come to reference as “clean the fridge lentils.”

It’s a free-form dish, one I celebrated last spring in a column about rolling over leftovers from one meal into the next. The constant ingredient being red lentils or yellow split peas, this stew can accommodate a wide variety of vegetables, namely the dregs of the produce bin, evidence of avoiding the grocery store for a couple of weeks. Most recently, that included celery, onion, leek, carrot and Romanesco.

But I was pleased to run across an actual recipe that essentially confers southern Indian authenticity on my approach. The main distinction between Kootu and lentil soup or stew is the step that calls for stir-frying the vegetables with spices and aromatics before adding cooked lentils, rather than simmering the vegetables until tender in the same pot with the lentils. The method yields veggies that have caramelized and deepened in flavor before soaking up some of the lentils’ essence.

Because I didn’t have white lentils and curry leaves, I simply omitted them.

Tribune News Service photo

Cabbage and Carrot Kootu

3/4 cup masoor dal (red lentils) or moong dal (split yellow lentils)

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric, divided

2 tablespoons oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon urad dal (white lentils)

1 whole dried red chile

2 or 3 curry leaves (optional)

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 medium green chile pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced

1 tablespoon peeled and minced, fresh ginger

2 cups coarsely shredded cabbage

1 cup diced carrots

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

In a deep saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add the red lentils and 1/4 teaspoon of the turmeric.

Reduce heat to medium and cook lentils, uncovered, until soft and tender, for about 20 minutes. (If most water evaporates before lentils become soft, add an additional cup.) Set aside.

In a saucepan over medium, heat the oil. When oil is hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds and urad dal.

Cover and cook until mustard seeds pop and urad dal is golden brown. Immediately add the whole chile and curry leaves,

Add the onions, minced green chili and ginger. Stir well. Add the cabbage and carrots; stir-fry for about 2 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon turmeric, the ground cumin and salt; stir well.

Immediately add cooked lentils and about 1 cup water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until cabbage and carrots are cooked and tender. Taste and add more salt if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe from "Vegetarian Flavors With Alamelu" by Alamelu Vairavan (Hippocrene Books; November 2020).