Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Paneer and Butternut Squash Kashmiri Chili spices up a boring dish

One of the most commonly repeated assertions made by American home cooks might often be the most untrue: "I make a mean chili."

Although I, too, used to think that way, I can now say with confidence that I also make a mean Indian chili.

Growing up in the North and Southeast, I wasn't exposed to "authentic" chili. The recipe in our house involved little more than browning ground beef and onions, then adding canned tomatoes, water, kidney beans, tomato paste and chili powder.

Today I would find that dish one-dimensional and underseasoned. But I loved it back then, undoubtedly because its real purpose was to serve as a vehicle for big dollops of sour cream, mounds of grated cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. The goal was to heap as much of it all as you could onto a saltine and get it to your mouth before the thing crumbled.

There are two ingredients I consider non-negotiable for any chili: onions and garlic. The former for body and sweetness, the latter for punch. These are my starting points for many savory dishes, especially soups. In my chef days, my response to the diner query, "I don't like onions and garlic. What can I have?" was "a seat in another restaurant."

Making chili is all about building, layering and melding. Maybe it's not good news for cooks constrained by the five-ingredients-in-five-minutes formula, but chili requires multiple ingredients and time to cook. I simply see no other way to create body and concentrate flavor.

To justify the effort, make a big batch. It's a great party food, it freezes well and often lends itself easily to repurposing. Add stock to thin it out, it's a soup. Blend it with lots of cheddar or pepper Jack cheese and sour cream and you've got a great casserole. Serve a smaller portion and it's a side dish for a future meal.

When I decided to go vegetarian, I immediately thought of Indian cooking, so rich in textures and highly spiced that I don't notice when a dish is meatless.

I had in mind dal (a thick, souplike lentil side dish) meets palak paneer (cubes of farmer's cheese in creamed spinach) meets paneer makhani (paneer cheese in a spice, tomato, cream and butter sauce).

Paneer is a wonder cheese. It retains its faintly spongy, pleasant texture in hot foods and has a wonderful, pure dairy flavor that tofu just doesn't. It can be hard to find, but Central American queso blanco is a perfect substitute.

To enhance the paneer's substance for a main course, I roasted cubes of butternut squash in plenty of butter, to be added at the end. That's also a nice seasonal touch.

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