Spice Things Up with Curry! (Part 1: The Basics)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chicken in Peanut & Red Curry Sauce with Thai Eggplants
One of the most common complaints I hear about cooking is how difficult it can be to cook for one or two people. As a single mom living on my own, I spent a few years trying to figure out how to cook for myself at a time when my son was content with grilled cheese or chicken nuggets. Scaling down recipes or refrigerating leftovers is not always practical, so it often ended up being wasteful and expensive to buy the ingredients most recipes require. I found myself desperately in need of a fun and tasty meal that could lend itself to single servings and utilize ingredients I commonly had on hand. Enter curries. Flavorful, healthy, adaptable, and easy to make, curry quickly became my go-to dish when I was in a bind or just wanted a little spice in my life.

Shrimp & Zucchini Curry
Although not a specific dish in itself, curry refers to a wide range of heavily spiced dishes that can be found in ethnic cuisine across the globe – primarily Indian, Asian, Caribbean and African. Cooking curry dishes is an awesome way to learn how to season your food and get comfortable with spices. The recipes range from simple to complex, so there's room for every skill level. I've had as much success making curries with 5 ingredients as I’ve had with dishes requiring 10 or more spices alone. You can pile on the meat or seafood, or decide to keep it vegetarian. You can make your curry a spicy, three-alarm fire or a mild dish with sweet components. You might prefer to serve curry with a side of rice and Naan flatbread, fresh veggies and a salad, over noodles, or simply by itself in a bowl. The possibilities are endless really. Be creative.

Lobster Curry Tacos
Most curries can easily be prepared one serving at a time, much like stir fry. They also refrigerate well, so I often will make enough for two and take the rest for lunch the next day. I save the odds and ends from my veggies as I’m prepping meals throughout the week and toss them into a curry dish along with pantry staples.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on authentic curries from around the world, and luckily you don’t have to be a chef to enjoy fantastic curry at home. Many traditional curries may take up to a few hours to make, calling for whole spices toasted then ground by hand using mortar & pestle, sweating onions and then slowly braising large pieces of meat – excellent if you have the time, typically I do not.Unless you are attempting to recreate a traditional recipe, all you need to know is the basic process and become familiar with a few key spices. Similar to cooking stir fry, there is a general order to what is added to the pan but once you understand the basics it’s easy to adapt based on the ingredients you’re using.  

Vegan Sweet Potato & Kale Curry
Here’s what you need to create tasty, quick, basic curry dishes in 30 minutes or less:

(1) Oil and a decent pan or wok. I choose my oil based on the flavors of the dish I’m making and/or how long it needs to cook. Oil with a high smoke point yields better results, so vegetable or extra virgin olive oil may not always be the best choice. Most Indian versions start with ghee, a clarified butter, which I am committed to one day making…for now, grape seed or coconut oil works great and tend to be my usual choice.

(2) Aromatics. These include ingredients such as garlic, ginger, onions, and hot chilies and are typically added to the hot oil.  I’ve found that slicing fresh ginger and crushing a couple cloves of garlic works best because it adds flavor to the oil but the big pieces can easily be removed from the pan if they brown too quickly. To add some heat, I’ll add diced chili pepper or jalapeño, or simply a pinch of cayenne. Adding hot peppers earlier in the cooking process makes for a milder dish versus adding them at the end, so keep that in mind.You may also decide to skip the aromatics altogether if you're using a curry paste that already contains these ingredients.

(3) Spice, curry powder or curry paste. Once added to the pan, allow it to cook for a few minutes until fragrant. I tend to rely heavily on turmeric powder, cumin, and coriander, supplementing with cloves, paprika, nutmeg and even cinnamon. When possible I prefer making my own curry powders or pastes, as they really are quite easy to customize based on my own tastes, and they can be made ahead of time to use as needed. That said, there is nothing wrong with using store bought curry seasonings especially if you have no real need to stock up on some of the lesser used spices they contain. Most major brands such as McCormick and Badia carry inexpensive "curry powder," which is a generic blend of spices. You can also find a wide variety of curry powders and pastes in the ethnic aisle of your grocery store that can provide a more specific type of curry seasoning, like Garam Masala and Thai Red Curry. As with any commercial product, read the labels and steer away from those containing excessive preservatives or artificial flavorings.

(4) Protein. When making curry with meat I will usually brown it and remove from the pan, adding it back in after my sauce is made to finish cooking. This way it gets cooked thoroughly but doesn’t dry out. Alternatively you can leave your meat in the pan to slowly simmer in liquid until cooked. Most seafood is best when added at the end of the cooking process to avoid overcooking it, especially quick-cooking items like shrimp. Tofu is another great way to get some protein in your curry dishes. Try frying it in the oiled pan until golden brown and then removing; adding back to the pan later to simmer in the curry sauce.

(5) Vegetables or fruit. Veggies like mushrooms, zucchini, squash, bell pepper, spinach, kale or eggplant will only require a few minutes to sauté or simmer, so these are great choices for curry dishes. You could also use lentils or diced potatoes, just be sure to add plenty of liquid to the pan and allow enough time to simmer. Much like stir fry, the best results for cooking quick dishes comes from cutting your veggies in uniform size. Softer ingredients like tomatoes or diced mangoes are best added towards the end of the cooking process if you want to keep them whole; they will break down with heat.

(6) Liquid. Some good options are vegetable, fish or chicken stock, coconut milk, tomato sauce, Greek yogurt, pureed fruit or combinations thereof. Of course, if you prefer a dry curry you can leave this out or use just enough to deglaze the pan; if you want to turn your curry into a soup add more stock or other liquid base. I have had the best success with using coconut milk as the base of my sauces; it adds a nice complement to the curry spices to offset the spiciness and a creamy texture. If you want to add a richer coconut flavor, dissolve a few ounces of pure creamed coconut into your curry sauce. If you want a lower-fat option, try using light coconut milk.  Again, be sure to read labels as some brands of coconut milk are not pure and contain a ton of additives and preservatives.

(7) Seasoning and garnishes. Always remember to taste and season your curry dish before serving. It sounds like common sense, but many people don’t realize salt is not a component of most curry powders. Add just enough salt to the dish to bring out its flavor. Another culprit to underwhelming curries can be expired spices – remember dry spices are only good for about six months, after which they lose all flavor. Just as in cooking other dishes, a splash of citrus juice from lemons or limes, and chopped fresh herbs such as cilantro, basil or mint can really make all the difference in creating a memorable meal. A few slices of fresh avocado, diced fruit, or sliced hot chilies also help to up the elegance of your dish. Choose garnishes that make a tasty compliment to the flavors of the curry itself.

Mixed Seafood Curry
Easy enough right? Don’t take my word for it, get in the kitchen and start cooking! I promise after making a curry dish or two you’ll find ways to adapt recipes and make them your own...and that's really what cooking’s all about, isn't it?

Stay tuned for some full recipes for my favorite curries in Parts 2 & 3 of this post!

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