From Living Within, April
At about this time in a normal year I would be contemplating lightening up my wardrobe and bringing out the straw baskets for some spring shaped shopping but, as my paper reminds me this morning with news that mulled wine sales are up by 50% in Marks and Spencer stores this first week of the Easter holidays, this year is far from normal and we are still up to our ears in winter chill. Fatigue is setting in as we tire of our winter duds and of root vegetables and comfort foods; frankly, we have all had enough.
So what to do when the weather and the season are so out of step? In my kitchen I am headed on a spice trail; Moorish, Moroccan, Middle-Eastern or further to the great subcontinent of India, these cuisines don’t require exactitude of recipe based as they are on an understanding of harmony in aromatics, colour, texture and flavour, and are always welcome no matter the season or the outdoor temperature. For anyone interested in joining me, I am going to share here the elements of a generically spiced Indian curry.
The subcontinent is, of course, a big place and the influences on it many and varied. The Moghuls entered and conquered from the north bringing with them Persian influence and sophistication - an emphasis on meat is an important legacy from these powerful, manly invaders - and the paddy fields dedicated to that queen amongst rices, basmati, have from ages past been placed firmly around the foothills of the Himalayas, establishing this refined and scented grain as a regal staple here where biryanis and pilaffs are more associated with celebration than anywhere else. In coastal areas fish is predominant, and in the south, where coconut also often features, a more vegetarian ethos fits with the strictures of Hindu sensibilities (not to mention the prevalent poverty), and hot chilli peppers, introduced from the Americas by Portugese colonisers, are the most widely adopted form of heat and piquancy. So you can see that a generic Indian anything is not really going to be an easy task. Nevertheless I offer here a method for an easily adaptable curry that can accommodate fish, foul, meat, and even vegetable and, once learned, can be repeated and built upon as you make it your own without it ever becoming tiresomely familiar.
Spices are added whole or ground into the cooking pot and it is important to understand how they work. Nearly all spices benefit from some cooking to help release their flavour and crushed or ground that flavour is released more fully; however, ground spices lose their potency very quickly, which is why one must throw away ground spices that have been sitting in the cupboard for any length of time. The ready ground from the supermarket are fine for an everyday kind of meal, but if you want something truly special take the time and trouble to grind your own as and when you need them. Most whole spices will benefit from gentle toasting in a dry pan (over a lowish heat and for just long enough for them to start to smell fragrant) and then grinding them in either an electric coffee grinder (one that will never, ever be used to grind coffee incidentally!) or with a mortar and pestle.
The early building blocks of this curry include whole cardamom pods (split to expose their seeds), cloves, cinnamon stick and bay leaves toasted lightly in a heavy and wide based pan, otherwise empty apart from a little cooking oil. As soon as these spices have started to release some fragrance, and taking great care not to let them burn, add in copious amounts of finely sliced onions (at least two and three or four usually won’t go amiss). The onions need to brown in order to give the right flavour and colour to the finished dish and their volume will reduce considerably as they do so. Stir them regularly (constantly if your heat is very high and you want caramelisation to happen quickly) until they are an even shade of golden brown; again, you must be careful not to burn them for as soon as this happens the flavour will turn from fragrant to acrid.
Season the onions with a little salt, turn down the heat and add in some ginger-garlic paste - made by peeling a thumb sized piece of ginger and two or three cloves of garlic and either chopping them very finely, or grinding them to a paste (this can be done in an electric processor but is also achieved very effectively with a grater - a fine blade for the soft garlic and perhaps a slightly coarser one for the more fibrous ginger). This paste should be cooked and stirred for two or three minutes, enough time for a change in aroma from sharp and slightly harsh to something perfumed and having lost all raw edge; it absolutely must not burn, which it is inclined to do if the heat is too high or if it is allowed to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add in some ground spices - a teaspoon of turmeric, a scant tablespoon of cumin and coriander and a half a teaspoon or so of chilli powder, hot or mild according to your taste and tolerance for chilli heat. These will also need stirring and gentle cooking for about a minute. If at any stage the mixture is in danger of sticking to the bottom of the pan, add in a little water - no more than a teaspoon or two at a time, the spices and aromatics should remain as a paste and toast or fry not boil.
To enrich the paste add some chopped tomato flesh (skin and seeds removed) and/or some plain yoghurt or coconut milk. Yoghurt has a tendency to “split” or curdle at high temperatures so add it gradually and stir it in carefully over a low heat; if it does curdle, don’t worry too much, the look not the flavour will be the main casualty. Once your base sauce is beginning to simmer and has a thick consistency, add in whatever you would like to cook in it. Choose from: diced stewing lamb; chicken pieces (skin removed); fish (choose something that will retain it’s shape once it has cooked), or prepared vegetables. Season your chosen main ingredient before you add it to the pot or just after you have done so and coat in the sauce. If you need more liquid at this stage, add in a small wineglass measure of water but bear in mind that the main ingredient is likely to give off liquid of its own. Simmer, stirring from time to time and covered if cooking is going to take more than a few minutes only for as long as the main ingredient requires to cook: fish, for example, will take minutes, chicken somewhere in the region of half to three quarters of an hour and lamb up to a couple of hours or longer depending on cut and how slowly you cook it; fish should be just cooked, meat should be tender and the sauce should be thick and well flavoured.
Toward the end of cooking time taste the sauce adjust the seasoning and remove any visible whole spices. Add some fresh tomato wedges if you like and garnish with finely chopped or sliced fresh ginger or chilli and fresh chopped coriander leaves. Serve with a salad of chopped cucumber and tomato, hand around plain yoghurt and maybe some chutneys and accompany with bread or with plain steamed long-grain rice (preferably basmati).
There is much you can do to alter and embellish this curry - other spices, herbs, vegetables and sweetening and souring agents will each add their own qualities - but this basic dish, I am prepared to lay odds, will taste like nothing you have tasted in any restaurant. You are at liberty to be as gentle or as heavy handed as you like with the spices and flavours and, once mastered, there is no going back!
“The most important element of cooking is the taste you create.” ~Ismail Merchant