Indian lamb kheema makes a tasty base for versatile meals

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Khema lamb

Total time:1 hour


Total time:1 hour



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The cover of Vishwesh Bhatt’s new cookbook is a still-life photograph: jars of black-eyed cowpeas stand near patina-tinged silver ladles, and beside them, cabbage leaves blossom. Pert heirloom tomatoes, marbled purple eggplant and a bowl of okra fill the middle of the frame. In the top, whole and ground spices add color and the promise of so many flavors.

It is an effective and romantic illustration of Bhatt’s childhood in India and his adopted home in the southern United States.

“I want people to see me as I see myself: an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who has chosen to make the South his homeland, and who has thus become a leader of the South. I claim the Southern United States, and this is my story,” he wrote in the introduction to “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef.”

I was immediately drawn to Bhatt’s story, as I love both Indian and southern American cuisine, and her book appealed to me as an immigrant daughter who sometimes struggled to claim the United States as his homeland. “Recently someone important asked me if I considered myself a Southern leader,” Bhatt writes. “The answer is absolutely yes. I know I was not born here, but this is where I call home and this is where I earn my living.

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More than that, Bhatt wants to help redefine Southern cooking. “I want the food of my childhood, the flavors I grew up with, to be part of the Southern culinary repertoire – just like tamales, lasagna and kibbeh have become,” he writes. “I want to show that the ingredients of the modern Southern pantry were also the ingredients of my mother’s pantry.”

Her recipes are a delicious blend of both cultures. Dishes like sweet potato turnovers with cardamom and black pepper; black-eyed pea and mustard soup; baby eggplant stuffed with peanut masala; Gujarati-style okra pickle; and lamb kheema exemplify Bhatt’s perspective of using the best of both cuisines to create his own harmonious whole.

I love making kheema, so I knew I wanted to share her version. It starts with ground lamb, which is often easier to find in grocery stores than specific cuts of lamb. (If you don’t see it at your market, ask at the meat counter to make sure there isn’t any in the back.) If you don’t like lamb or can’t find it , any other type of ground meat – or plant-based substitute – works well here. I even made it with canned lentils.

As Bhatt explains, kheema “can be applied to any loose ground meat, but lamb and goat kheema are by far the most common in India. Think of it like a picadillo or a the topping of a sloppy joe.

A good kheema relies on deeply caramelized onions, which provide a slightly sweet base. Caramelizing the onions takes the longest in this recipe, but since the onions are diced rather than sliced, they will take less time to cook. Be patient and let them darken slowly before incorporating the ginger, garlic, a jalapeño and tomato paste. Next, the yogurt adds richness and helps bring together the flavors of cardamom, garam masala, Kashmiri chili powder and turmeric.

Before long, your kitchen will be filled with the most bewitching smells. Then all you have to do is decide how you want to serve the kheema. I love it over rice, but Bhatt suggests folding it into “quesadillas, scrambled eggs, omelettes, hand pies, and shepherd’s pie.” Eat it on soft buns, sloppy joe style like they do on the streets of Mumbai, or use it for a pizza topping with paneer and feta.

It’s so versatile you might want to double the recipe so you can use it as a base for multiple meals throughout the week.

  • If you don’t want to use lamb >> any type of ground meat or plant-based substitute works well here, as does canned lentils.
  • For best results, start with whole cumin seeds, roast them, then grind them before making kheema.
  • Out of yogurt? >> Add 1/2 cup of crushed tomatoes instead.

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  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, or ghee
  • 1 medium yellow onion (9 ounces), finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped or finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced or finely grated garlic (from 1 or 2 cloves)
  • 1/2 jalapeño, stemmed and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup plain whole yogurt, preferably Greek style
  • 2 teaspoons ground garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder or hot paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, more if needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 pound ground lamb or other ground meat
  • Chopped fresh mint, for garnish
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the onions turn the color of walnut skins, about 30 minutes. Be patient and don’t rush this step, as you want the richness of the caramelized onions to bring a depth of flavor to the meat mixture. If the onions start to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tiny bit of water to loosen them; if they continue to stick, reduce the heat slightly.

Stir in ginger and garlic and cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the jalapeño and tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste turns several shades darker, about 4 minutes more. Add the yogurt, garam masala, cumin, chili powder, cardamom, salt and turmeric and cook, stirring often, until it forms a fragrant, golden paste, about 4 minutes.

Stir in the ground lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula, until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Garnish with chopped mint and cilantro and serve like a family, with rice on the side.

Per serving (1 cup of kheema)

Calories: 450; Total fat: 35g; Saturated fat: 13 g; Cholesterol: 87mg; Sodium: 384mg; Carbohydrates: 10g; Dietary fiber: 2g; Sugar: 5g; Protein: 23g.

This analysis is an estimate based on the available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.

Adapted from “I Am From Here” by Vishwesh Bhatt.

Tested by G. Daniela Galarza; questions by e-mail to [email protected].

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Check out this week’s Eat Voraciously recipes:

Monday: Chicken velouté and spinach soup

Tuesday: Shrimp with Kale, Garlic and Smoked Paprika

Wednesday: Cod stew with fennel, olives and orange essence

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