This last week, I have been on a curry kick. CURRY.
Curry is an extremely versatile dish (or category of dishes) that seems, on the surface, to be problematic in the summertime. It is served hot and it can be VERY spicy. That being said, curry originated in places near the equator, where it is hot for a much greater portion of the year than here in Northern Nevada. So what gives?
Interestingly, spicy dishes can actually help you feel refreshed when the weather is warm. Not really sure about the science behind this, but I distinctly remember culinary school lessons about food that makes you sweat, cooling you down. There is no clear time and place where curry was “invented.” The word curry comes from a Tamil word “kari” which simply means sauce. The earliest records of dishes prepared with sauce flavored with a variety of spices dates back to 2500 BCE--so people have been making curries for a really, really long time. Much like coffee, the spices that are prolific in curry traveled along trade routes (specifically the Silk Road) carried along by Indian monks. Their use in culinary preparations is as nuanced as the myriad of cultures that incorporate them. What we definitely know is that the British LOVED curry. Thanks to British imperialism, curry was spread around the world with strongholds in the former British colonies.
In fact, curry powder itself is a British creation. The goal of curry powder was to create a single spice blend that British soldiers could take back to England to recreate the flavors that they experienced while in India. While curry powder is certainly convenient, it was never intended to be added as a single dry spice into a dish (like coronation chicken) and is nowhere near as nuanced and delicious as a true dry spice curry made with a mix of individually toasted and ground spices. If curry powder is all that is available to you when preparing a saucey dish of your own, the best practice is to fry the spice mix in hot fat--this awakens and elevates the spices and infuses the oil with their flavor, reducing the pungency that can plague dishes made with curry powder.
In my kitchen, you are way more likely to find curries prepared in a Southeast Asian style--I always have a jar or two of red and green Thai curry pastes in my fridge and a couple of cans of coconut milk in the pantry. Again, the best curries are made from individual ingredients, ground together by hand in a mortar and pestle--but I want to eat curry way more regularly that I have the time to handcraft my spice mix, and Thai curry pastes are a workable solution. The thing that I love so much about curry is (in addition to being delightfully fiery) it is a perfect vehicle for ALL THE VEGGIES.
My farm box this week contained a variety of goodies including Green Garlic from Lattin Farms; Yaya Carrots and Dino Kale from Desert Farming Initiative; Cilantro from Fisk Farms; Mint from Salisha’s Delicious; and Sugar Snap Peas and Garnet Sweet Potatoes from a pair of California farms in Grass Valley. All of these ingredients are perfect candidates to be coated in a creamy spicy curry sauce--and coat them I did. Here are a couple of helpful curry hints:
- If you are using an animal protein that requires longer cooking (beef or chicken NOT fish or shrimp), sear off your meat in a neutrally flavored oil until it is nicely caramelized then set aside.
- Add your foundational seasoning ingredients: garlic, onions, ginger, fresh or frozen turmeric, lemongrass, etc. and sauté them until they are soft.
- Then add in your dry spice mix or curry paste and gently fry until the oil is aromatic and the smell or the spices permeates your kitchen.
- Add wet ingredients like coconut milk, canned tomatoes, stock, and water. Also, a couple of good shakes of fish sauce adds some complexity and a spoon or two of brown sugar can add depth.
- Add veggies in order based on how long they take to cook: sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables at the beginning; hearty greens in the middle; snap peas, green beans, and other delicate veggies at the end.
- You can cook your curry on the stovetop OR in the oven. Either way, please finish your sauce by simmering until it has a silky texture and coats a spoon.
- Serve your curry over rice or on its own. I always finish my curry with a heap of fresh herbs and a squeeze of lime or lemon.
Here’s a recipe for you to try.
Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Coconut Milk
By Melissa Clark
1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces OR a package of whichever chicken part you prefer
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
Black pepper, as needed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ cup finely chopped green onion
1 ½ inches fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 1/2 tablespoons)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped OR 2 heads of green garlic, whites chopped and greens added as garnish
1 to 2 jalapeno or Serrano chiles, to taste, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons red curry paste
1 can coconut milk
2 medium sweet potatoes (1 pound), peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
¾ cup coconut flakes
1 tablespoon black or brown mustard seeds
Fresh cilantro leaves
- Heat oven to 325 degrees. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
- Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil. Brown chicken pieces, in batches if necessary, until golden all over, 6 to 8 minutes per batch. Transfer chicken to a plate.
- Stir scallion, ginger, garlic and chiles into pot and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until soft, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in curry paste and cook 1 minute. Stir in coconut milk and sweet potatoes. Arrange chicken pieces on top of potatoes, placing breast meat on top. Pour in enough water to come halfway up the sides of chicken. Bring to a boil. Cover pot and transfer to oven. Bake until chicken is cooked through, about 40 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large dry skillet over medium heat, toast coconut flakes until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mustard seeds and toast until they begin to pop, 1 minute more. Transfer to a bowl and season with a pinch of salt.
- Transfer chicken and sweet potatoes to a platter. Return Dutch oven to the stove and simmer over medium-high heat until cooking liquid has thickened to a sauce like consistency, 5 to 10 minutes. Pour over chicken and potatoes. Sprinkle with the coconut and mustard seed mixture and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing.