Black-eyed pea and okra curry

Closeup on a spoon of black-eyed pea and okra curry, with rice, sitting in the midst of the larger plateful, the delicate white grains of rice contrasting with the hearty thickness of brown, red, olive, and green curry ingredients.

Guys! It’s 2017 — Happy New Year! I may be officially the least helpful food blogger ever this holiday season, for which I apologize: by my count, I managed to miss the solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas entirely, and I started it all off by barely squeaking in before Thanksgiving with a recipe both untraditional and slightly fiddly. Go team Optional Kitchen?

Two small dishes of spices: a shallow saucer of mustard seeds and whole garlic cloves, and a white ceramic bowl brimming with cumin, coriander, fenugreek, pepper, and whole red chiles.

But I’m determined not to miss the New Year entirely. Yes, yes, I know, it already happened. But while I didn’t post this recipe in time for you to make it for the holiday itself, my sense of superstition is surprisingly flexible. To wit: although I didn’t grow up with the tradition, I find it somehow superstitiously important to eat black-eyed peas and greens and pork on New Year’s. And yet:

  • I stuck bacon in a different dish, so apparently I don’t feel like it all has to be together.
  • I’m counting okra as a green here (because it’s… green?), so apparently I’m pretty lax about ‘greens’.
  • I actually made this dish on January 2nd because I knew I’d want to photograph it and I had to pick up Jarod from the airport during the little window of good midday light on New Year’s Day, so apparently I’m pretty loosey-goosey on the date as well.

So by my reckoning, by posting this recipe now I’m in the superstition ballpark of giving you a timely New Year’s recipe. Let’s call it a Three Kings Day gift. (It’s been kind of a year. I’ll take what I can get.)

Overhead shot of a plate of curry and rice, the two fairly neatly bisecting the plate. The winter light creates strong shadows, giving the scene an almost Renaissance air, with the yellow napkin, water glass, and steel spoon standing out from the dimmer countertop like props in a Caravaggio canvas.

Excessively long preamble number 1 complete, more on the recipe itself: this is one of those magical things that come into your life when you wander farmers markets. A couple years ago, I stopped in to chat at Green Seed Farm’s booth in the Clintonville Farmers Market. Nina and Nitsan always have interesting produce there, so I wasn’t surprised when they showed me a bag of Malabar spinach, which is a vining green with a mucilaginous texture. I bought it excitedly, but when I got home I realized, belatedly, that I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. (This happens when you buy produce based on it being pretty and having a cool name.)

After some Googling, I found a recipe for a curry that combined the Malabar Spinach with black-eyed peas and a combination of seasonings that was simple and fragrant. I made that curry a good dozen times that summer, because I was obsessed. The Malabar spinach and tomatoes and coconut made a thick, sweet, fresh sauce that offset the earthiness of the black-eyed peas perfectly and I simply couldn’t get enough of it.

A small white bowl of canned tomatoes, a blue enamel bowl of frozen okra, and a bright purple onion: winter cooking necessities, clustered on a countertop.

But then after that summer I’ve never seen Malabar spinach at the farmers market again, and I never seem to quite remember to look for it in the Indian grocery. Fortunately, at some point I had the bright idea of using okra in its place, since okra has the same thickening powers as Malabar spinach. I worried that it wouldn’t have the same magic to it, but my fears were unfounded: it’s great.

So now, since I pretty much always have frozen okra in my freezer, I can have delicious curry whenever I feel like it, which is a very good start to this year. Happiest of new years to you; may you eat in good cheer.

Closeup on a spoonful of curry, a bright red cube of tomato nestled in light brown gravy, studded with black mustard seeds

Black-eyed pea and okra curry

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Print

Earthy, hearty black-eyed peas in a thick, satisfying sauce brightened by tomato and spices, sweetened by coconut, and studded with tender green okra: I can think of no better start to a new year.

Adapted from Mangalorean Malabar Spinach Curry at Veg Recipes of India.

Ingredients

1 cup dry black-eyed peas

3/4 c dry, unsweetened coconut

3 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
6 whole black peppercorns
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 to 3 dry red chiles de árbol, stems removed (or other smallish dry chiles)

2 Tbsp coconut or vegetable oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1 large red onion, chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pinch asafoetida/hing (opt.)
3/4 c diced tomato (about half of a 14 oz. can; or 1 large tomato, chopped)
1/2 lb. chopped okra (about 2 heaping cups; frozen is fine)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Kosher salt to taste

Basmati rice (or your favorite long-grain variety) to serve

Directions

Soak black-eyed peas overnight in salted water. Drain, then return to saucepan with 2 1/2 cups of lightly salted water; bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside (do not drain).

In a heatproof bowl, pour 1 cup of boiling water over the coconut. Let sit till lukewarm, then blend together and set aside. (It will likely not be smooth, which is fine.)

Place a small skillet over medium-high heat, and add the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, fenugreek, and chiles (dry; no oil in the skillet). Toast, stirring frequently, until they are fragrant and very lightly browned. Process in a spice grinder or blender until well-ground: it doesn’t have to be a uniform powder, but there should be no large pieces of spice or chile remaining. Add the pinch of hing, if using.

In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, melt the coconut oil. Add the mustard seeds and cook, covered. The seeds will pop; continue cooking, shaking pan occasionally, until most of the seeds have popped, then uncover and add the onion and garlic. Sauté until onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the spice blend and sauté about 30 seconds, until the spices smell very fragrant. Add tomato, okra, black-eyed peas, coconut, and a heavy pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes, until the okra is completely tender and the sauce has thickened. This curry should be medium-bodied, so depending on the thickening power of your okra, you might need to add up to a cup of water; just keep an eye on it as it cooks, adding water if it’s getting too thick.

Once the okra is tender, remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Serve with rice and any other accompaniments you like.

Options

The recipe I’m adapting calls for Malabar spinach, a vine which is rare in American supermarkets. However, it’s worth sourcing for this recipe — see the Wikipedia article for other names by which it might be called in ethnic markets — since it’s really lovely in this recipe; you’ll want about 1 1/2 cups of chopped leaves and stems.

Don’t feel like cooking your own black-eyed peas? Use two cans (the standard, 14 or 15 oz. size). You can dump them directly in the pot without draining.

This recipe also works with coconut milk instead of the rehydrated coconut. The texture’s a bit different: it’s smoother and a bit more liquidy, and its flavor tends toward sweetness rather than earthiness. These aren’t bad  things, mind you: just different. Use about a cup of coconut milk, and reduce the cooking liquid in the black-eyed peas to 2 cups. You will almost certainly not need to add any water during cooking, but keep an eye on it just in case.

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