Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sweet Potato, Carrot and Butternut Curry

Curry is one of those funny dishes that is either a staple or a mystery to any given home cook. The unfortunate reality is that the first thing to come to mind for most people when they are confronted with cooking a curry is to reach for the "curry powder," a completely western invention developed in England (I believe, correct me if I'm wrong) in an attempt to capture the flavors discovered during colonization in India. Now one yellow powder is sometimes used to encompass a myriad of cuisines across the world...oh dear.
my bag-o-spices and some garlic to pave the way

You can look histories and recipes for different cultural spice mixtures (very interesting and definitely worth a browse), but here I will just describe last night's deliciousness: a curried amalgamation of orange. Yum. Unfortunately by virtue of the texture, a curry slurry is a difficult dish to photograph, so please forgive the photos, but if anyone has food styling or photographic expertise please let me know if you have any tips for capturing the beauty in a dish whose aesthetics do not necessarily do justice to the flavor.

To start, the essential base for the flavors to come are the whole spices and it is worth the paltry investment to go get a few little baggies from a store that sells them in bulk (much less expensive - you can spend less than $10 for all these and they will last for many many dishes). The basics to have (all in whole form...with an exception for turmeric which is not always available fresh) are: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, cinnamon bark, red pepper flakes and whole peppercorns. For some dishes you may want to play around with some nutmeg, star anise seeds, whole cloves and curry leaves if you can find them. It's all about experimentation! Make sure to keep these all in an airtight, cool, dark place and they will keep for a year or more.

So, it all starts with the onions (funny how that comes up in almost any culture). Saute some chopped onions in a liberal amount of butter, ghee or/and olive oil (a little cultural blending and adaptation...it's all about doing what you can with what you have). When the onions start browning, toss in some spices. This may seem vague, so here are some guidelines (what I used for this dish), but don't stress too much about being exact:

cumin and coriander - start with a heaping spoonful each
fenugreek and mustard - about half of what you did for the above two
a sprinkle of red pepper flakes
some of a stick of cinnamon
a few peppercorns

Saute these and some chopped garlic and ginger (if you have it) for a couple minutes with the onions until you start smelling the fragrance of the spices bloom into the oil. Add the orange stuff (butternut squash, carrots and sweet potato), some water or stock, a small sprinkle of turmeric and then cover and simmer until the veggies are nice and soft. There will probably be a lot of watery water around the veggies (not the texture you really wanted), so take out about half and puree or mash until creamy, then return to the skillet. This will both enhance the texture and flavor because some of those whole spices will now be pulverized, deepening their flavor. At this point I added some whole coconut milk and simmered until it was the consistency I wanted (creamy and not too thick). Serve over brown rice and garnish with chopped cashews. Yum.

There are infinite combinations of these spices that you can experiment with in your dishes. Sometimes if the dish doesn't come out quite strong enough for your taste (always better to err on too weak over too strong), it is nice to have a homemade spice mix to beef it up a bit at the last minute. You can do this by taking some of your whole spices, toasting a mixture of them in a hot dry cast iron until they are fragrant, then grinding them into a powder and storing them in an airtight jar in the fridge. You can look around the web for ideas as to what spice combinations and ratios are tried and true, though once you get the hang of it, making up your own masalas as they are called is a unique touch.

Making naan, chapatis or other flat bread is an amazing compliment to any curry-style dish as well, but I think that will have to wait for another post. Until then, cook well and keep experimenting. Pace.

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