Cooking Off the Cuff: Peas, Tomatoes, Indian Spices. But No Cheese

Contemplating a cup and a half (360 ml by volume) of excellent cherry tomatoes and not quite enough freshly shelled peas to constitute dinner by themselves, Jackie and I simultaneously thought of a favorite Indian dish: Mattar paneer, which employs both ingredients, plus paneer, a South Asian fresh cheese. But there was no paneer in the house and it was too hot to walk to the nearest place that sells it. Since we were now looking forward to a warm mouth-buzz of spices, devising a cheese-free tomato-and-pea curry seemed the right thing to do. The cooking was easy, and the outcome delicious. If you use vegetable oil rather than butter, it is a good vegan option too.

I began with the simple spice mix, which I based on one in Julie Sahni’s excellent Classic Indian Cooking: For this quantity, I combined 2 teaspoons black cardamom, pods and all (green would be fine), and 1/4 teaspoon each of dried chili flakes and black peppercorns, and ground it in my spice-specific coffee mill along with a teaspoon of pre-ground turmeric. I also checked my store-bought garam masala mixture and found that it had faded with time. It was a minute’s work to make a small batch of my own (also based on Ms. Sahni’s recipe): 1/2 tablespoon cardamom, a 1.5-inch (3.5 cm) piece of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cloves, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns and 2 tablespoons each cumin and coriander seed, the spices briefly toasted in a small, heavy skillet (with no fat) and ground once they’d cooled a little. But, believe me, I’d have used the one from the shop if it hadn’t lost its aroma. I shall keep the rest of my fresh garam masala in the freezer, where it will retain its power longer.

This was going to be a mostly farmers’-markety curry, and I began by quartering the cherry tomatoes and setting them aside. Next, I halved and thinly sliced three small new-season onions around an inch and a half (just under 4 cm) in diameter. I sweated these in clarified butter (because I had some: vegetable oil would be fine – or whole butter, come to that) along with salt and a heaping tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger (not from the farmers’ market, though that wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility at certain times of the year), and when they were tender added most of the first spice mixture and continued to cook for a minute or so before adding the tomatoes, whose juices deglazed the pan. As the juice continued to flow, it also generated a sauce to which, after a couple of minutes, I added the peas and simmered until tender. Depending on your tomatoes (and you could certainly use a couple of full-size ones, diced, instead of the cherry tomatoes), you might need to loosen the sauce with a little water.

Finally, I stirred in a generous teaspoonful of garam masala and checked carefully for salt: the spices demand sufficient salt to balance them. Another possible addition to ensure balance might be a tablespoon of whole butter stirred in at the last minute; on this day, with these tomatoes and spices, it wasn’t needed.

We ate our curry with basmati rice lightly scented with fennel seed and shards from a cinnamon stick; yogurt mixed with fresh mint and a small cucumber that had been sliced thin and salted 20 minutes in advance; and a couple of new-season potatoes, boiled, halved, sprinkled with whole mustard seeds and a little garam masala (curry powder would be good here if it’s something you keep in the house) and slowly browned in butter, cut-side down.

Although the flavor was similar to that of mattar paneer, the dish seemed entirely new. Try to squeeze it in before peas disappear from your local farmers’ market.

<p>Summer tomato and pea curry is reminiscent of mattar paneer, but without the cheese</p>

Summer tomato and pea curry is reminiscent of mattar paneer, but without the cheese

<p>New-season onions and chopped ginger start the dish</p>

New-season onions and chopped ginger start the dish

<p>Home-mixed spices</p>

Home-mixed spices

<p>Cook the spices for a while before adding the tomatoes</p>

Cook the spices for a while before adding the tomatoes

<p>The peas simmer in the spiced tomato juices - add water if needed</p>

The peas simmer in the spiced tomato juices - add water if needed