This dish of ground beef cooked with cubes of sweet potato and diced asparagus is based on something my mother made a lot when I was young. It wasn’t a festive dish—not something you had on holidays or made for company.
Her version, like mine, comes together in under half an hour, and requires very little grinding, chopping, or other prep work. It was, and still is, something that you can pull together with little effort that is still delicious, comforting, and surprising.
Kheema, the Hindi word for ground meat (usually lamb in most places, though my mother used beef), is one of those one-name dishes that evokes different images for different people. The variations are too rich and plentiful to allow just one authoritative version.
And yet, if you asked anyone who grew up with it, their family’s kheema was probably typified by one element more than any another. Some spice, some little truc that made it distinctive, personal, memorable.
For me, that little gesture was the addition of chopped cilantro and mint to the aromatics as they cooked.
Cooks these days are often exhorted to treat fresh herbs with the utmost care. Don’t bruise them or you’ll ruin their bright flavor. Don’t add them to the dish until the very last minute or they’ll wilt away to nothing and take their herbal identity away with them.
Though this approach preserves the freshness of fresh herbs, it ignores another of their great strengths—their ability to confer great depth of flavor when slowly and patiently cooked. To me there are few aromas more tempting, more complex and tantalizing than that of onions, ginger, or garlic (or all three!) frying in ghee with a big handful of chopped mint and cilantro. At once bright, herbal, sweet, and peppery, it’s an alchemical, marvelous aroma.
My mother’s version of this dish almost always used potatoes and sweet peas. The potatoes, because they were a staple she always had on hand, the peas because she would buy them in great quantities when the prices hit rock bottom and painstakingly shell and freeze them for the months ahead. Though it’s hard to improve on the simplicity of the original, I do like the color and gentle sweetness that the dish gains from using an orange-fleshed sweet potato, as well as the nutty earthiness of using asparagus instead of the fresh peas.
But make your own choice. This is a dish that truly only comes into its own under experimentation. Cook it, change it, add your own little flourish to it, make it your own.
NOTE: I use coconut oil here, but I can’t say it’s an oil my mother would have used when I was growing up. I happen to like the flavor, but if you’d rather use another, neutral-flavored oil, go ahead!
KHEEMA WITH SWEET POTATO AND ASPARAGUS
Serves 4-5 as a side dish
2 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil
1 inch peeled ginger, julienned
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 branch curry leaves, stripped from the branch
2 green chillies, finely chopped (or to taste)
1 lb ground beef
3 tbsp finely chopped mint
3 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
1 small orange-fleshed sweet potato, peeled and cut into fine dice
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch segments
2 tbsp amchur
Salt and pepper
In a large kadhai or wok, heat the coconut oil over high heat it begins to shimmer.
Add the ginger and garlic and immediately begin to stir. Continue to cook for 2-3 minutes, or until both are flecked with gold but not burnt.
Add the curry leaves to the hot oil and stand back—it will sputter impressively. Stir briefly, then add the green chillies, mint, cilantro, and ground cinnamon. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the herbs are wilted.
Add the ground beef to the pan along with a large pinch of salt. Stir to combine well with the spices and herbs in the pan, pressing down on the beef and hacking at it with the side of your spatula occasionally to make sure that it is broken up and beginning to brown.
When the beef has just begin to brown, add the sweet potato and asparagus and stir to combine well.
Lower the heat and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Let cook for 7-10 minutes, checking halfway through to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add up to a quarter cup of water to the pan if it feels like it’s in danger of scorching.
Uncover the pan and check the sweet potato for doneness—it should be cooked through but still holding its shape. If there is more than a scant amount of liquid left at the bottom of the pan, raise the heat back up to high to reduce it.
Off the heat, add the amchur to the kheema along with a generous grind of fresh black pepper. Taste for salt and adjust as needed.
Serve hot with freshly made phulkas and tadka dhal for a perfect weekend lunch.