During a trip to India a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to stay at the Samode Palace and spend time in the kitchens learning about the local cuisine. This 300-year-old maharaja's mansion is about 30 minutes' drive north of Jaipur, in the heart of the Rajasthan desert. Its mirror-tiled halls and mural-lined walls, marble swimming pools and regal, antique-filled suites offer a lush haven in the fierce heat of the desert.
While there, I mentioned to the concierge that I would like to visit a local farm. An elegant man wearing a crisp white tunic and jodhpurs was summoned and introduced himself as Mr Monty Yadu. "I'll take you to my farm," he said and within minutes we were bundled into the hotel's open-top Jeep and hurtling down the winding roads of the little town of Samode into the desert. About 5km out of town, we turned into a narrow, unsealed driveway. At the end, a dozen cattle were tethered on a small ridge overlooking a vast field of cauliflowers.
Women dressed in vivid saris and wearing colourful chunri headcoverings were crafting giant towers of glorious white cauliflower, ready to bundle up for the market. Monty explained that this 2.5ha organic farm is able to support a staggering 63 people in his extended family. Apart from spices, which are purchased at the local market, all the other food required is grown here, often with spare to sell. Only Monty and his brother work outside the farm - everyone else works the land.
In the courtyard of Monty's immediate family's dwelling, two women were cooking over fires on the bare earth, cutting fat wads of fresh fenugreek leaves and other greens through a scythe mounted upright on a block of wood.
One of the young girls prepared a fresh coriander chutney, using a well-worn slab of rock at the entrance to the courtyard to grind the fresh leaves with salt, chillies and spices into an aromatic paste.
Under cover to one side was a small kitchen with a gas burner, where Monty's wife was cooking some dhal. In less than 20 minutes we were sitting down to a feast - tender millet flatbreads that Monty's wife mixed and cooked in a flat pan while we watched (it's too hot to grow wheat so millet is the primary grain), the creamy mixed lentil dhal she had been preparing when we arrived, and the most fragrant and flavoursome cauliflower curry imaginable, cooked in less than 10 minutes. Deeply aromatic with spices, garlic and chillies, it was a dish to remember.
The memory of that meal is one that will stay with me forever - such a beautiful, welcoming feast made out of so little. That's the beauty of vegetarian cooking - nature shines on every plate.
I've attempted to replicate that simple meal with this week's recipes. I hope it's as memorable for you as it was for me. Your body will thank you and so will your wallet and our planet.
Ready in 40 mins
1 red onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 green chilli, coarsely chopped
3 Tbsp neutral oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp chilli powder, or to taste
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
1 tsp turmeric
Pinch of asafoetida (hing powder)
½ cup water
1 cauliflower, cut into florets
1 cup torn coriander leaves, to serve
In a blender or food processor, whizz onion, garlic, tomatoes and chilli (this is called the gravy). Heat oil in a large pan and cook cumin seeds over medium heat until fragrant (about 1 minute). Add gravy to pan with chilli powder, ground coriander, garam masala, salt, turmeric, asafoetida and water. Simmer over medium heat until oil starts to come to the top of the sauce (10-15 minutes). Add cauliflower florets and stir to combine. Cover and cook until cauliflower is just tender (8-10 minutes). Check seasonings, stir through half the coriander leaves and top with the other half to serve.
Annabel says: Variations of this curry, made with different seasonal vegetables, are standard daily fare in northern India in the spring and autumn. This version comes from the orphanage in Jaipur where our daughter Rose worked as a volunteer.
Ready in 45 mins
4 cups plain flour
1½ tsp salt
1½ cups cold water (plus extra 1-2 Tbsp if required)
Extra plain white flour, to dust
100g lightly melted butter (plus extra to brush)
2 Tbsp ground cumin
Place flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre and add water gradually while mixing. Knead to make a soft but not sticky dough. Divide dough into 10 equal portions and form into balls on a lightly floured surface.
Stand for 5 minutes then roll out each ball into a disc about 16cm in diameter. Brush tops with butter (about 2 tsp each) and sprinkle each with ½ tsp cumin. Make a cut from the edge to the centre of each disc then roll it up from this cut to make a cone. Stand it upright, then gently roll into a disc that is now made up of layers of dough and spice mix. Brush top with a little more butter.
Heat a heavy pan and cook breads for about 2 minutes on each side until lightly golden. Stack and keep warm until needed.
Annabel says: Jeera, or cumin, is one of the base notes in Indian cuisine. Here it is used to flavour a flaky flatbread. Paratha can also be made without the cumin or with a mixture of other spices, or prepared as a stuffed bread, using a spicy cooked potato filling.
Ready in 10 mins
Makes ½ cup
2 large handfuls (100g) coriander leaves
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped
1 spring onion, green parts only
¼ cup neutral oil
½ tsp salt
Place coriander in a bowl, add 1 cup boiling water, drain and rinse under cold water to set colour. Drain well. Place in a food processor or blender, add remaining ingredients and puree until smooth. Serve within 6 hours.
Annabel says: This zingy side dish is best made on the day it is to be served as its verdant colour leeches out over time. It's fabulous with roasted meats and vegetables or as a dip for bread. Mix in some natural yoghurt and cucumber for an accompaniment to a spicy curry.