Dear Noelle: I recently visited family in Southern California — I’m from Northern California — and my aunt took me to Clay Oven in Irvine, swearing up and down that it is the best Indian food around. And, man, after the meal, I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t been able to get the spicy lamb vindaloo out of my head. I’ve tried to improvise with other recipes, but I haven’t been able to get close. The heat was perfection, and I’ve never had such tender lamb while dining out at an Indian restaurant. My aunt suggested I turn to Culinary SOS for help. Can you track down the recipe for the spicy habanero lamb vindaloo?
— Sarah Bennish, via email
Dear Sarah: If you love spice, you can’t go wrong with this vindaloo, which packs more than a little heat. Chef Geeta Bensal was happy to share her recipe with us, noting that her restaurant’s habanero-spiced vindaloo is “made with our own home-grown habaneros.”
Clay Oven’s spicy habanero lamb vindaloo
Cooking time: 1 hour
1 large or two small habanero chilis, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 (2-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups water, divided, plus more for grinding the ginger and garlic and thinning the gravy if needed
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1/4 cup grated coconut (you can use unsweetened frozen coconut)
1/4 cup rice bran or canola oil, divided
4 bay leaves
8 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 pods green cardamom, smashed
3 white onions, finely chopped
1 whole dry red Kashmiri chili
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 pounds lean lamb, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon cumin powder
8 (1-inch) cubes boiled, peeled boiling potato
2 tomatoes, cut into quarters
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, divided
1. Soak the seeded, chopped chili in the vinegar for a few minutes to soften, then grind to a paste (a mortar and pestle work well for this). Grind the ginger and garlic as well to a paste, adding a little water if needed to soften. Finally, use a blender to puree the finely chopped tomatoes and coconut together with 1 cup of the water.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil over high heat until hot. Add the bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cloves, cumin seeds and cardamom, and toast for a minute or so, just until aromatic, being careful not to burn the spices. Stir in the onions, then the ginger and garlic paste, the Kashmiri chili, coriander powder and turmeric. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are golden brown, about 20 minutes. If the gravy begins to thicken too much and dry out, and/or the onions begin to stick, stir in water, a little at a time, and continue cooking.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and spoon the spiced onion mixture into a bowl. Place the pan back over high heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add the lamb pieces and sear on all sides until well-browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and place the lamb pieces on a plate. Add the spiced onion mixture back to the pan and heat over medium heat, scraping any lamb flavoring from the base of the pan.
4. At this point, taste the mixture, adding salt to taste. Remove the whole spices if desired (the gravy can also be pureed at this point for a smoother consistency). Stir the lamb into the gravy along with the cumin powder and habanero paste. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, to marry the flavors, 2 to 3 minutes, then stir in the pureed tomatoes and coconut. Add the remaining cup of water.
5. Continue cooking until the lamb is fully cooked, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. When the lamb is almost ready, stir in the potatoes and quartered tomatoes, along with one-half of the chopped cilantro. Taste again, seasoning as desired before serving. Serve the vindaloo garnished with the remaining chopped cilantro.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories: 638; Protein: 46 grams; Carbohydrates: 26 grams; Fiber: 5 grams; Fat: 39 grams; Saturated fat: 10 grams; Cholesterol: 136 mg; Sugar: 8 grams; Sodium: 139 mg
NOTE: Adapted from executive chef Geeta Bensal of Clay Oven. Serve the vindaloo with rice or naan. Kashmiri chilis are available at Indian markets and select cooking supply stores, as well as online. Rice bran oil is available at select well-stocked markets, as well as health and cooking stores, and online.