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I still feel a spike of panic when I have to cook an entirely vegetarian meal–and I mean the Indian vegetarian, so no eggs, and no hidden non-vegetarian items like chicken stock in a soup base. But living in San Francisco makes it easy to be inspired by fresh fruit and vegetables, so I wasn’t totally at a loss when I found out that my father was coming to the spend the weekend with me.

Baba thinks I’m a good cook, but he doesn’t think terribly highly of my Indian food, and with good reason. I think the fact that I don’t use certain ingredients like curry leaves, or the fact that I have pretty much taught myself most of what I know, means that what I make doesn’t taste anything like what my mother makes.

So I knew better than to make Indian food for Baba. Also, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time cooking while Baba was around. So I thought up a way to assemble simple ingredients that pulled more than their weight. Here’s the finished product, which we had for lunch–roasted potatoes and cauliflower, toasted pearl couscous with peas, and, my favorite element, spinach purée with garlic and mustard.

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It’s so simple that I don’t even know that I can claim this as a recipe. Here’s what I did:

Roasted veggies

Preheat the oven to 400 or 425 degrees (don’t be afraid!). Scrub potatoes to remove dirt; slice thinnish-ly; toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cut cauliflower into florets and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. You can add spices like cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander for a more Indian flavor, or smoked paprika for something quite different. Arrange the veggies on a baking dish (I used a cookie sheet) lined with aluminum foil and sprayed lightly with oil. I overlapped the potatoes partly but left the cauliflower in a single layer. Roast uncovered till you can pierce it easily with a fork–check after about 15 minutes.

Toasted pearl couscous

Buy pearl couscous, also called Israeli couscous. Bring 1.25 cups of water to a boil; cover and keep aside. Heat 1 – 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large sauce pan. When the oil starts to shimmer, toss in a cup of couscous and stir to coat. Toast over medium heat; careful to stir occasionally or the grains will burn. When some of the grains are dark and others are medium-brown, pour in the water. Lower heat to a simmer, cover and cook. About 7 minutes in, toss in frozen peas and minced cilantro. Another 3 or so minutes and the water will all be absorbed. (Basically, follow directions on couscous container, just bung in peas and cilantro a few minutes before the couscous is done.)

Spinach purée with garlic and mustard

Ah, now this I am proud of and less dismissive of. It’s basically saag but I’m proud of it because I used it to create another dish (that’s a story for another time) and I loved this purée so much that I made it again for this dish.

Ingredients

I used a 1lb box of spinach, a third of a head of garlic and 2t ground mustard. You’ll need olive oil (or butter, if you’re feeling decadent), salt and pepper. You’ll also need a bunch of fresh cilantro–rinse to remove grit, and slice off the bottom two inches of stems (below the tie that holds the bunch together).

Method

Mince the garlic. Heat 1-2T olive oil in a large, shallow skillet over high heat. Toss in half the garlic; stir. When it turns golden, stir 1t ground mustard. Add 1/4lb of  spinach, stirring to make it wilt. Add another 1/4lb and stir it in. Add a pinch of salt as you go. Don’t wait for the spinach to turn to mush; once it’s mostly wilt-y, transfer to a bowl and let stand. Repeat the process for the remaining garlic, mustard and spinach.

Transfer the spinach mixture to a food process; pulse till smooth. Now! Add in the cilantro–just shove the bunch in, stems and all. Pulse till incorporated. Taste; adjust salt and pepper. You can squeeze in a few drops of fresh lemon juice if you like, and cayenne pepper.

And you’re done!

Notes

This purée is super-versatile. Thin it with stock for a pasta sauce; keep it thick and serve with tortilla chips or toasted pita triangles for appetizers; briefly sauté paneer in it for an only-slightly-cheating version of saag paneer; or sauté chicken or fish in it; go wild. It’ll keep for a while in the freezer, too. I don’t know for how long–at least a few weeks–I end up demolishing it within a couple of weeks.

FYI–I specified a large and shallow skillet or pan because you want the water in the spinach to evaporate quickly, rather than get trapped inside the skillet and made the purée watery. If it does get watery, just add extra cilantro or fresh spinach to the food processor while you’re making the purée.

Reprise

The spinach purée showed up again for dinner the next night. I roasted portobello mushrooms and stuffed them with sauteed crimini mushrooms and yellow bell peppers. I put the spinach purée in a Ziploc bag, snipped off a small corner of the bag, and used that makeshift device to squeeze the purée in a ring around the edge of the plate.

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