Monday, March 1, 2010

Three Curries

Lately, friends have been asking me about curries.  With the opening of more Indian restaurants in local neighborhoods and smaller U.S. towns, rural foodies are getting a chance to try foods from regions surrounding the Indian Ocean.  The culinary curiosity this sparks inevitably follows diners home. 

Curries are really just stews and one-pot meals in a highly flavored sauce or gravy.  While a few ingredients are new, many of the cooking techniques are familiar.  Once you’ve made a curry on your own, you’ll see the similarity and will enjoy sampling ones from different regions at home or dining out.

There are many variations under the general heading “curry” and curry powders are a packaged convenience that most regular curry eaters eschew.  Indian and eastern cookbooks note that curry spices are blended and cooked at the time the dish is being prepared. Just as families may have their own special chili powder blend, barbeque sauce for ribs or spice rub for chicken and beef, curries allow for great creativity once you know what spices make up the basic flavor profile.  Don’t toss your jars of curry powder yet.  After you try a curry of your own, you’ll know whether you still like the pre-mixed blend or would prefer to change it up a bit. 

Of the three curry recipes here, only one calls for pre-blended curry powder.  The other two show you how curries are easily built spice by spice.  Our first curry is beef based and perhaps the closest to a beef stew in flavor and preparation.   This is the one that uses a pre-blended curry powder.  The second curry is a chicken-chickpea-cashew one-pot meal made with tomatoes and rice.  The third is an all-vegetable curry that relies on a coconut milk base and can be served as a side dish as well as a main course.  A side dish curry is an easy way to introduce curries to your family alongside some grilled chicken or firm fish.

When making curries, don’t be put off by the long lists of ingredients.  You will be pleasantly surprised at the number of ingredients you have on hand.  Enjoy using your spice rack.

Massaman Beef Curry cooks in a base of peanut butter and coconut milk.  Beef is perfect here but chicken and tofu are also cooked in this curry.  Very authentic recipes use tamarind juice (especially for a vegetarian version with tofu) instead of beef broth.  I use a mixture of both if I have tamarind on hand but don’t hold off making this if you don’t have a tamarind source.   Directions below are for a slow cooker.  To cook in a conventional oven, place ingredients in a Dutch oven or other oven-approved covered pot in step 3 and cook in a 325˚F oven for about 3 hours.
The curry powder used in Massaman Beef Curry is mild and has coriander, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek, black pepper and very little cayenne pepper. Any blend you like is fine but if you don’t see (or smell) cinnamon in the mix, add 1/4 teaspoon to the sauce, since this is a key flavor.  Spice Islands curry blend is a good example of a mild store brand that is appropriate in this recipe.  It does not contain cinnamon so add 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon for every 3 tablespoons curry powder.   

Foolproof Massaman Curry in a Slow Cooker
2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into large chunks (2-3 inches or larger if cooking on low for more that 6 hours)
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk  (use a low fat or lite version)
1/4 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons curry powder (plus 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon if not in curry blend)
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce, aka nam pla (ok to substitute soy sauce)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup beef broth (or tamarind juice)
2-3 potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts
fresh cilantro, pain yogurt (optional)
Cooked rice

Note: Browning the meat is optional--- if you have time great.  If you are not browning the meat, mix the sauce ingredients together in a bowl or screw-top jar (step 2) with a tablespoon of vegetable oil and pour it over the beef in the stock pot. 
  1. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the beef in the melted butter until the beef is browned on all sides. Transfer the beef to the slow cooker while keeping the beef drippings in the skillet.
  2. Keeping the skillet on medium-high heat, stir the coconut milk, peanut butter, and curry powder into the reserved beef drippings.  Cook and stir until the peanut butter melts. Turn off the heat and stir the fish sauce, brown sugar and beef broth into the coconut milk mixture.  Pour the coconut milk mixture into the slow cooker.
  3. Turn the slow cooker on to Low. Cook on Low until the beef is fork-tender, 4 to 6 hours.   8 hours+ if using large cuts of meat. 
  4. About 20 minutes before meat is finished, boil the potatoes until just tender.  Stir the peanuts, frozen peas and potatoes into the curry and allow the peas to heat through, about 15 minutes with the slow cooker on high.
  5. Serve over rice or noodles with cilantro, cool yogurt and some pita bread

Moroccan Cashew Stew (with Chicken) shows that those who don’t think of themselves as expert cooks can be inventive and successful creating new and wonderful dishes.  Moroccan Cashew Stew is a mild, tomato-based curry that can go two ways successfully—vegetarian or chicken. My friend Tracy created this versatile stew by trusting her own taste and making the leap to add cashews. Cashews add protein and make this curry so unique, they give it its name.

Moroccan Cashew Stew (with Chicken)
2 cans cooked chick peas (garbanzo beans)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds skinless chicken thighs or breast meat*
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup diced onions
1/2 cup diced celery
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes in juice
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 pound dried green lentils (roughly 1 cup dried)
1 cup long-grain brown rice
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup unsalted, raw cashews
Greek yogurt, lemon wedges and cilantro for garnish
*optional, to make a vegetarian version, skip chicken step and substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth. 

  1. Heat olive oil in a medium stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add onion and celery and cook over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes.  
  2. Add ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Stirring prevents spices from burning.  
  3. Add tomatoes with their juice plus chicken stock, lentils and chickpeas.  Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook at a low simmer for about 1 hour.
  4. Add chicken pieces, rice and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.  If liquid is almost absorbed, add an additional cup of broth or water.   Cover and return pot to simmer. Cook thirty-forty minutes more until chicken is cooked through and rice is soft.  Stew will be thick and have absorbed most of the liquid.
  5. Stir in cilantro, parsley, lemon juice and cashews.  Cook, uncovered, an additional five minutes or until cashews have softened. 
  6. Serve in wide bowls with a dollop of yogurt, lemon wedge and a generous sprinkling of herbs. 

If you’d like more heat, Tracy suggests adding 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper to the recipe.  You can mix it in with the other spices or at the end when the herbs are added.

Vegetable Basket Curry (and Soup) is a hearty vegetable stew.  It makes a large batch and can be divided into smaller portions and frozen.  Serve it over rice, couscous or noodles.    The curry can also be pureed with a bit of low-fat coconut milk and/or vegetable broth to make soup.  Since both the stew and the soup versions freeze well, this is one of those efficient recipes that pays dividends when you want something hearty but don’t have much energy or time.

Vegetable Basket Curry (and Soup)
1 medium onion
1 stalk celery, scrubbed, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (or 1/8 teaspoon each cayenne, oregano, paprika, cumin)
1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 medium cauliflower, cut into florets
1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut in bite-sized chunks
2 medium zucchini, sliced
14 oz can beans, drained- chick peas, kidney beans or white beans recommended
pinch saffron threads
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 T fresh parsley, chopped
(salt & pepper)

  1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, saut√© onions and celery in olive oil until translucent.  
  2. Add turmeric, chili powder, ginger and cinnamon and cook briefly to release oils.  
  3. Add carrots and parsnips and stir in vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook 5 minutes. 
  4. Add butternut squash, cauliflower and zucchini.  Cover and cook another 10 minutes.  
  5. Stir in remaining ingredients and cook over low heat uncovered about 5 minutes more or until all the vegetables are at desired tenderness.

If you are trying this curry as a side dish, serve it with a simple grilled chicken, marinated in yogurt, crushed fresh garlic, coriander, cayenne pepper, cumin, lemon juice and salt.  This is the famous Tandoori Chicken which is usually made with skinned bone-in chicken parts.

After cooking these three curries, you'll know enough to start making your own curry spice blends to hand out as gifts at the holidays.  Or, just pass along the recipes.