Vegetable coconut stew

Living in South India is a food adventure; there are so many types of dishes, snacks, fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen or heard about before. In particular, there’s a whole array of breakfast dishes that I love and eat any time of the day, which may be frowned upon by my Indian friends, but I still struggle with the concept of curry for breakfast! It’s very different to coco pops or toast.

One of my favourites is a vegetable stew, a fantastic vegan dish, which hails from Kerala, so of course it contains my number one ingredient – coconut. It’s not spicy but has a wonderful subtle flavour that still warms the tummy and tempts the tongue. It’s also unusual to have such a white stew with the colours of the vegetable just coming through. I think it looks lovely although I have a friend who it just upsets – he thinks it looks all wrong!! Traditionally it’s served with appams, a type of pancake made from rice and coconut. Preparing the appam mixture is a long process that involves lots of soaking, grinding and fermenting – even the ready made mixture requires 10 hours of soaking so I’ve only ever eaten them in a restaurant, not made them at home. It’s a shame they’re so complicated though, as they are really delicious to taste. Cooked in a small pan, it’s shaped like a bowl which then holds the stew.

Instead of appams, I serve the stew with rice, which still tastes great but has a different texture/taste combination.  I used to cook white rice, just because it seemed quicker and there’s always more choice on the supermarket shelves. Brown rice has a bad image; historically only eaten by the poor and more recently by bowel obsessed hippies. But the thing is, the poor and hippies were definitely getting the better deal. Nutritionally, white rice has the same carbohydrate and calorie content, but that’s as far as the similarities go. Brown rice retains the bran and germ layers – these contain the minerals and vitamins which would be used by the starchy endosperm beneath if left to grow. White rice has both these layers removed and is then polished, which removes the bran oil. This is good at reducing LDL fats. Plus these layers contain most of the nutritious goodies such as vitamin B1, B3,B6,  iron, selenium and magnesium. White rice stores better than brown, but that really is it’s main advantage other than cooking quickly. Eating it actually uses up the body’s stores of vitamins and minerals rather than replenishing them.

I now buy organic brown basmati rice and soak it before I want to cook it. It takes a little more planning but cooking is then fairly easy.You need a minimum of 30 minutes soaking. This can leach out the nutritious goodies though, so the best thing to do is quickly rinse the rice under a running tap, then place in a bowl and add the water – one cup of rice, 2 cups of water. Once you’re ready to cook, pour the rice and water altogether into the saucepan, put on the lid and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. Most of the nutrients in the water will then be absorbed back in to the rice as it cooks. With the lid on, the water goes in to the rice rather than be evaporated and once it’s all absorbed, it should be ready to eat – slightly firm and nutty.

Vegetable coconut stew recipe – serves 4 (or 3 if there’s 2 hungry boys nearby!)1 tsp oil
2 – 4 green cardamom pods, depending on how much you like the flavour
cinnamon stick
1 sliced onion
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
Green chillies, sliced – this will determine your heat (see below)
2 potatoes
1 –  2 carrots
big handful green beans
peas or sweetcorn (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves
approx 200 mls coconut milk
ground pepper – white if you have it
To be super duper healthy, scrub the potato and carrot and boil them until nearly cooked. Steam the green beans. Retain the cooking water from both. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
Heat the oil and fry the cardamom pods and cinnamon until the aromas are released then add the onion, ginger and chilli and cook until softened. Add in the cooked vegetables and fry for a few more minutes so they absorb the flavours in the pan (you can put in raw veg at this point and fry, then cook, but I find the coconut milk splits and spoils, hence why I cook them first). Add peas and/or sweetcorn if you’re using them and pour in some of the retained vegetable water, curry leaves and stir in most of the coconut milk so you have a fairly fluid stew. Leave to simmer for 5 minutes or so, but watch it so the milk doesn’t split. Add in the pepper, a pinch of salt and finish with the last of the coconut milk so it’s lovely and white.

Interesting facts about green chillis:
I like a mild chilli flavour, but am not at all a fan of a strong, burn-the-lining-of-your-mouth sensation that you can get with some. The problem is you never know quite how strong a chilli is going to be. Obviously there are different types of chillis, and ones like the birds eye chilli is known to be a head blower. So it’s really down to taste and pot luck how much chilli you put in a dish. For this one, I used two as my son was eating and does not like a spicy flavour – just sliced down the middle and the seeds removed, leaving 4 halves to permeate their flavour through the stew.
Chillis are actually remarkably good for you, being high in beta carotene, vitamins B, C (six times more than an orange) and E as well as iron and potassium.  The active chemical, capsaicin, that gives chillis their heat has many health benefits including dissolving blood clots, treating wrinkles and facial twitching and can burn calories by increasing your metabolism. It also releases endorphins that can relieve pain and put you in a good mood – it’s an active ingredient of some arthritis treatments and creams.
So next time your mouth is on fire, your nose running and steam is coming out of your ears, remember it’s good for you and enjoy!!!