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The Main Ingredients Challenge #4: Multicultural Meal (Challenger's Meal)

10/08/2013 05:36 EDT | Updated 12/18/2013 06:15 EST

My husband and I have a one-year old son and two cats, so our apartment is pretty full, with busy schedules to match. My husband works at night, and I freelance from home in between caring for our son. Making meals requires balancing all of those schedules.

As well, our dietary needs are different. My husband eats meat and has no food restrictions, but I am vegetarian and gluten-intolerant, and my son is vegetarian. We mostly cook vegetarian meals at home, because then we can all eat the same thing, but it requires some planning and creativity to make sure we're not always defaulting to gluten-free pasta and sauce from a jar.

My husband likes to cook, but his schedule keeps him from doing it much -- he's often leaving for work right around the time when we'd usually eat dinner. Every once in a while he'll make a large meal he can enjoy for several days, usually something with the meat we don't usually include. Most of the cooking falls to me, and while I can follow a recipe and like to try new things, I am not what one would describe as a natural in the kitchen.

We try to make meals that our son can also eat, even if it's a modified version. That has made us realize that we rely too often on take-out and processed foods, so we're looking for meals that are healthy and not high in sodium and preservatives, but can be prepared relatively quickly, from ingredients we either keep on hand or can get easily.

North Indian Chickpea, Lentil, and Squash Curry

I decided to make a vegetarian Indian recipe -- North Indian chickpea, lentil and squash curry --from Woman & Home. We all like Indian food, my son included, and I liked the idea of making something that could be cooked in one pot because it meant fewer dishes. Also, with both red lentils and chickpeas, this dish is a great vegetarian source of protein, fibre, zinc, and iron.

Main Ingredients Used:

The Main Ingredients II: Challenger's Meal 4

• Bok choy

• Lentils

• Squash

• Whole wheat pita

• Cauliflower

• Ricotta cheese

Ingredients List:

I made a few substitutions to the original recipe:

• 1/2 red onion, sliced

• 30 mL (2 tbsp.) canola oil

• 5 mL (1 tsp.) each ground coriander, fennel seeds, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, black pepper, chili flakes, ground cinnamon

• 950 mL (about 4 cups) water

• 5 mL (1 tsp.) low-sodium vegetable stock powder

• Pinch of asafoetida, a spice often used in Indian cooking

• Sprinkle of saffron to garnish

• 250 mL (1 cup) cauliflower, chopped

• 375 mL (1 1/2 cups) red lentils, canned

• 1/2 butternut squash, peeled and chopped into cubes

• 1,400 g (14 oz.) can chickpeas with no salt added, drained and rinsed

• 500 mL (2 cups) baby bok choy leaves, chopped

• Juice of 1 lemon

• 15 mL (1 tbsp.) chopped fresh mint

• 45 mL (3 tbsp.) chopped fresh cilantro

• 2 whole wheat Indian pitas

• 30 mL (1 tbsp.) ricotta cheese (for kid's portion)

Preparation: The recipe itself was straightforward: cook the onion and spices in canola oil, then add the water, stock powder, lentils, cauliflower, and squash. Cook until the squash is soft. I added extra water to account for the cauliflower, and put in a bit more stock powder to prevent diluting the flavour too much. Once the squash was cooked, I added the chickpeas, herbs, and bok choy leaves, heating until the leaves were just wilted. When it was done I finished with lemon juice and a sprinkle of saffron, and served with pita bread.

I tried to speed up the cooking time by doing some of the prep before I turned on the stove, and using cooking periods to get ready for the next step. I dug the various spices I needed out of the cupboard, so I wouldn't burn the fennel seeds while trying to find the cumin. If you wanted to add this recipe to your regular meal rotation, you could even make a mix of the required spices in equal portions and then just measure it out as needed. I chopped up the squash while I was heating the seeds and onions. Buying pre-cut squash would save time here, but it's more expensive. I measured out the chickpeas and cut up the bok choy and herbs while the squash and lentils were softening.

Makes 6 - 8 servings

The Verdict: This recipe was easy to make -- all it requires is chopping, then throwing it all into a pan and watching it cook. Heating up the oil with the spices at the start is probably the most complicated part, but it's only tricky if you don't have the spices ready to go. I liked that I could walk away for a few minutes once the squash and lentils were in.

It's also easy to sub in ingredients here, based on what you prefer or what you have in your cupboards. I used bok choy instead of spinach because my husband really likes it; any other hearty green, like swiss chard or kale, would also work. A different squash would be fine, if you preferred something other than butternut -- I think it would be good with sweet potato, as well. I added in a bit of extra water and some cauliflower just to use another veggie, since this was a meatless meal. And if you wanted something spicier, you could throw in more spices, like crushed red peppers. And this was gluten free, which was important for me -- my husband and son ate it with a pita, but I just skipped it.

This was also a child-friendly recipe for us. I added ricotta to my son's portion, both to calm down some of the flavours for him and to add some more calcium and protein. He had no trouble picking up ingredients like chickpeas and cauliflower, so he could feed himself, and he dipped the pita in the sauce. And because I made it from scratch, I knew that everything in it was healthy and safe for him to eat.

My only main complaint was that this recipe lacked a bit of oophm -- we're used to spicier Indian food and felt like something was missing here. If we made it again, we'd probably add a bit more garam masala and then put some red pepper flakes on our portions. On the plus side, the fact that it's not very spicy makes it great to share with our son.

I would make this recipe again, especially because it uses many ingredients that are in season for fall and so easy to find. It would make great comfort food come September.