A strange thing happened when I moved to New York: I stopped cooking (Indian) curry. Then, after a few visits to some of the city's less-than-terrific Indian restaurants I stopped eating it altogether. For a Brit, this is almost a form of treason. It's a bit like giving up tea, or beer, or deciding not to complain about the weather any more. On my return visits to London I would sometimes order a delivery from my favourite local Indian restaurant but then even that pretty much stopped. Somehow I'd just lost the habit, and considering that habit used to be of the two-or-three-times-a-week variety the loss was, as I say, strange.
Well, a few weeks ago I decided enough was enough. No more excuses about not being able to find the right ingredients, no more banging on about how I missed the fabulous Indian markets in my London neighbourhood; I needed a curry, dammit! So I set about assembling a reasonable approximation of my old garam masala recipe, searched my increasingly unreliable memory for recollections of how I used to make a basic curry (I haven't followed a written recipe for years), and got down to it. After a couple of passable near-misses I finally nailed it again.
This particular curry was a sort-of chicken madras, I suppose, but I loaded it up with a wild variety of goodies from our weekly CSA run. Normally I'd only include onion, green pepper, fresh chilli and tomatoes along with the meat but given the varied veggie stockpile in our fridge Ann and I have a pact to use them whenever and wherever we can. I was a little concerned that it might end up being a confusion of tastes and textures but happily, it worked. The point is you don't need to include all the vegetables listed below - you can take the simple base ingredients mentioned above and add whatever you fancy. Or not. That's the great thing about curries - you can be very experimental with them and have fun varying the ingredients to suit whatever's available in your kitchen and fridge.
Because of the recent sweltering weather I used a slow cooker but you can do it all in a large pan or skillet too. I served the curry with spicy basmati rice and Ann's excellent raita (mainly consisting of yogurt and chopped cucumber) which helps cool the fire!
photo by Holger Casselmann
This will make quite a lot. You only use about a teaspoonful in the curry so you may want to scale down the proportions, but if you plan on getting into the curry habit it's worth making a reasonable quantity so you don't have to do it every time. If you have trouble finding the black cardamoms you can just leave them out and add a bit more of the regular ones. Like curry itself, garam masala is a very flexible thing and there's no hard and fast recipe. You should compare this suggestion with other Googlings and experiment until you find a blend that works best for you.
4 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1.5 tsp dry ginger
1 tsp cardamom seeds
2 black cardamom pods (should yield about 3/4 tsp when ground)
3/4 tsp cloves
3/4 tsp cinnamon (about a 2" piece of bark)
3/4 tsp crushed bay leaves
Gently roast all ingredients except the ginger in a heavy skillet until they darken slightly. Stir/shake occasionally. Take it slow and be sure not to burn anything. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Once cooled, remove the cardamom seeds from their pods (a fingernail is usually handy enough to split them open) and return them to the other ingredients.
Grind everything to a fine powder. The easy way is to press an old coffee grinder into service solely for the purpose of grinding spices. The old-fashioned but tougher way is to use a pestle and mortar.
Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Chicken and Vegetable Curry
Note that the spice quantities suggested here will make a medium hot curry. Increasing or decreasing the amount of chilli powder or fresh chilli will make the most difference to the heat so you should adjust to your own tolerance. You might leave the fresh chilli out altogether, for example. Similarly, the quantities of cumin, turmeric and coriander are only a rough guide. Part of the fun of making curry is customising your spice levels!
The basic ingredients (ie all you really need)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 fresh chilli pepper, chopped. (I favour hot reds or serranos but you can use whatever type you fancy)
1 green bell pepper, sliced (optional)
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp cumin
3/4 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp dry coriander
1/2 tsp hot paprika (optional)
12 oz chicken breast, chopped into 1.5 inch cubes
15 oz can peeled tomatoes
1 tsp garam masala (see above)
The optional extras (ie the random CSA stuff!)
2 small potatoes, cut into 1/4" slices
1 zucchini or summer squash, cut into 1/4" slices
a small handful of sliced mushrooms
a small handful of green beans, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
a large handful of arugula
(Don't you just love the precision, here?)
Put little olive oil in a skillet and fry the onions, fresh chilli and bell pepper over medium heat until the onion is translucent and the pepper slightly softened. Add the garlic and powdered spices and fry for a further minute, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Get everything nicely coated. Add the chicken and stir for another minute or so, until the surface is just starting to cook. Transfer everything to the slow cooker and add the tomatoes and a little salt. Stir and set on high. As soon as it starts to simmer, turn the cooker to low.
You should leave it for at least three hours so you need to judge when you want to add any other vegetables depending on what they are and how long they need to cook. Using the examples here I added the various extras at approximately the following times before serving
Potatoes - 2 hours
Squash - 1.5 hours
Mushrooms - 1 hour
Green beans - 1 hour
Arugula - 15 minutes
Again, this is approximate and will depend on how firm you want the vegetables to be. The times given above strike a nice balance between too soft and too firm, I think, and they're sufficient to allow the flavour of the curry to permeate a little without entirely swamping the natural taste of the ingredients. And you don't really want crisp green beans in a curry. Or at least, I don't. But please yourselves!
The final touch is to add the garam masala, which you should stir in and mix well about an hour before you're ready to eat. Your kitchen will now start to smell seriously wonderful and you will have a hard time waiting that final hour to get stuck in to the spicy, aromatic goodness.
Curry really can benefit more than many dishes from a trial-and-error approach because everyone seems to like it slightly differently and part of the fun is in figuring out what works best for your preferences. Be loose! Be fearless! But don't forget to start getting the rice together about twenty minutes before you're ready to eat!
Spicy Basmati Rice
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red or serrano chilli pepper, chopped (and de-seeded if you're scared of a bit of heat)
Half a cup of basmati rice
6 fl oz white wine
6 fl oz veg or chicken stock
Salt and black pepper
Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan. Add the onions, garlic and chilli. Cook for a few minutes until the onions are soft. Stir in the rice and cook for another minute. Pour in the wine and reduce the liquid by half. Add the stock and seasoning; cover saucepan and cook until rice has absorbed the liquid. About 8-10 minutes.