On dark, cold winter nights, nothing is more comforting than a warm kitchen filled with the aromas of a favorite comfort food simmering on the stovetop. For me, fresh fenugreek leaves cooked with sweet potatoes is one such comfort food.
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Although a few summer vegetables remain available at U.S. grocery stores, most are long gone. Indian grocers, though, still stock frozen okra and eggplant. Along with several root vegetables, the one thing they stock abundantly is one of my favorite leaf vegetables, fenugreek leaves.
Fenugreek, one of the earliest known plant species, belongs to the bean family trigonella foenumgracum. It sprouts in cold weather with leaves consisting of three small ovate to oblong leaflets. The plant can grow to be about 2 feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds. Although it is a legume, fenugreek’s sprouts and fresh leaves are used as leaf vegetables, its dried leaves are used as an herb, and the small and oblong shaped yellowish brown seeds are used as a spice.
Fenugreek sprouts have a slightly pungent-sweet taste, which adds texture, taste and color to salads. Fresh leaves have a bitter-sweet taste and in Indian cuisine they are cooked as any leaf vegetable in curries as well as Indian flat breads. Dried fenugreek leaves are used in Northern Indian curries to enhance the flavor. Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste. Dry roasting enhances the flavor and reduces their bitterness. These need close attention while toasting because over-roasting will make them turn reddish brown and taste very bitter.
Health benefits through history
Ayurveda defines a balanced meal as one that includes six tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, sour and hot. Fenugreek is an ideal source of the bitter constituent in this balance. It’s rich in iron, calcium, phosphorous and is high in protein. According to Ayurveda, fenugreek slows the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulates insulin production. Both of these positively affect blood sugar in people with diabetes. It is believed to help lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fenugreek is used for digestive problems, such as loss of appetite and inflammation of the stomach. It is also used in preparing an herbal infusion to break up respiratory congestion.
Fenugreek is indigenous to western Asia, and southeastern Europe. Today it is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop. It has a long history as a culinary and medicinal herb in the ancient world. Its bitter seeds have held medicinal promise for many cultures over thousands of years. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. In ancient Egypt, fenugreek was used for the mummification process. It is widely used in the West, Central and South Asia and Northern and Eastern Africa. Iran has a rich tradition of cooking with fenugreek leaves. The Ethiopian spice mixture berbere contains small amounts of fenugreek.
Sweet potatoes as a perfect partner
Fenugreek leaves cooked with potatoes yields a very tasty side dish that is popular in India. Although the recipe calls for white potatoes, I prefer to use sweet potatoes. The mild sweetness of sweet potatoes perfectly balances the slight bitterness of the fenugreek leaves.
It is a bit time-consuming to separate the small leaves from the stem, but the resulting dish is well worth the effort. It is ideal to use the sweet potatoes with a golden skin and creamy white or pale flesh in this dish. These have a crumbly texture compared to the very soft texture of the orange flesh variety. Though orange-fleshed varieties are most common, white or very light yellow-fleshed types are also available at most grocery stores.
Fenugreek Leaves With Sweet Potato
One large, or two medium, sweet potatoes
2 cups fenugreek leaves removed from stems
2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dry-roasted and crushed cumin seeds
A few fresh curry leaves (if available)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon cayenne powder (less for milder taste)
1. Peel and cut the sweet potato into ½-inch cubes.
2. Clean the fenugreek leaves and separate the leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the fenugreek leaves.
3. Heat ghee/oil in a saucepan at medium heat and add mustard seeds. When the seeds start spluttering, stir in cumin seeds, curry leaves and ginger. Fry for a minute and then add the cubed sweet potatoes. Stir well, reduce the heat, and cover and cook.
4. After five minutes, sprinkle salt, turmeric and cayenne powder into the mixture and stir gently. Cover again and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the sweet potato pieces are cooked tender.
5. Add chopped fenugreek leaves, stir and cover the pan. Cook until the leaves wilt, about five minutes
6. Remove from the stove and serve hot with rice or Indian flat breads.
Top photo: Fenugreek leaves and seeds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran