Friday, February 18, 2011

More of a good thing

I apologize, but I'm on a curry kick.  Curries, whether Thai, Indian or Burmese, can be so different from each other and their flavor profiles so disparate that you could easily have a different curry every day for years and never experience the same curry twice.  Case in point: Raghavan Iyer's book, 660 Curries is just one person's compilation of various Indian curries.  In fact, Iyer subtitles his book "The Gateway to Indian Cooking."  So for me, the possibilities are mind-boggling, so I'm not going to bother to do the math.  Indian cooking alone incorporates a vast array of ingredients--probably and consistently the most ingredients on average per dish of any other cuisine (although I know some of you could show me mole recipes that take days to read).  Indian food, which we could never think of as dull and bland, also incorporates all the major tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter (and Indians would also argue there are two additional tastes, astringency and spice or heat). 

A fifth (or seventh) "recently discovered taste" is umami (translated as "deliciousness") and is present in things that are meaty, brothy, fermented, aged--usually protein-rich foods--but is also present in foods like grains, beans, and tomatoes.  Now, it's debatable whether or not umami is all that new.  If you follow food blogs, or watch cooking shows, or listen to NPR's The Splendid Table, you'll hear this word being tossed about quite a lot.  However, on a recent "Morning Edition" piece on NPR, what I learned is that Auguste Escoffier (the premier chef of Paris in the late 19th century) should really be credited with introducing umami because of Escoffier's simple but revolutionary creation of veal stock.  Suddenly, food didn't just taste good, it tasted like the best food you'd ever had in your life.

But I digress.  All of this was to point out that not only does Indian food possess incredible amounts of umami, the foods of many other Asian cultures do as well.  The recipes below definitely possess the fifth (or seventh) taste of umami.  They are both sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami in their own delicious way.  One thing they are not is spicy, so you can proceed confidently if you've shy palates in your house.  Accompaniments for these curries can be simple.  Try sliced cucumbers with lime or lemon juice, salt and fresh, thinly sliced jalpenos or serranos.  Or slices of peeled orange sprinked with cinnamon.  Or plain yogurt with fresh chopped mint.  Or mung bean sprouts with fresh lime juice, salt and chopped Thai basil or cilantro.

I'm sure your tastebuds will dance.

His Majesty's Chicken (from Hot and Spicy Southeast Asian Dishes, Dewitt, et al.)

     Another of my favorite curries, this originates from Indonesia.  Try it also with lamb.  It is mild with very little heat but has a hauntingly rich and exotic flavor profile.  Impresses new boyfriends and complacent husbands every time!

4 shallots, sliced
4 serrano or jalapeno chiles, seeded and chopped
2 Tbs. freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 1/2 cups coconut milk (I often use 1 15 oz. can and extend with water)
2 Tbs. oil
2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp. lemon juice
4 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 tsp. ground anise
1 3-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skin and fat removed (I often just use 3 lbs. thighs)
1 tsp. salt
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced
cilantro leaves for garnish

1.  In a food processor, blend the shallots, chiles, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, and pepper with 1/4 cup of the coconut milk to form a paste.
2.  Heat the oil in a skillet and stir-fry the paste, cinnamon stick, lemon juice, cloves, cardamom pods, and anise over medium heat, for a couple of minutes.
3.  Add the chicken and fry it for about 5 minutes, or until browned.
4.  Add the remaining coconut milk, salt, and tomatoes and cook over moderate heat until simmering.
5.  Reduce heat to maintain simmer and cover.  Baste chicken frequently with sauce, cooking for about 40 minutes.
6.  Serve hot with jasmine or basmati rice.  Garnish with cilantro.  Serves 4.

Cari (Vietnamese Chicken Curry)
         from The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam by Bach Ngo & Gloria Zimmerman

     Usually served with rice noodles as a party dish or with rice as a family meal, this is an authentic Vietnamese curry.  You can also serve this curry with French bread, which would not be unusual in Vietnam due to the occupation of the French colonial empire during the late 19th century.  Sweet potatoes, a primary ingredient here, are much-loved by the Vietnamese.  Surprisingly, this curry uses curry powder (and you can certainly use the version with which most Americans are familar--predominant notes being fenugreek and turmeric), easily purchased in most grocery stores, and orignally developed by the British to imitate Indian masala, or a blend of spices.

1 stalk fresh lemongrass or 1 Tbs. dried
3 1/2 tsp. curry powder (a good Vietnamese brand is Fortuna)
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. sugar
4 tsp. salt
1 3 lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces (each breast cut into quarters), or substitute all thighs (cut in two)
7 Tbs. oil
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (you can substitute white potatoes)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

3 bay leaves
1 large onion, cut into wedges and sections separated
2 cups water
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 2-inch slices (I often use more carrot)
2 cups coconut milk, fresh or canned
1 cup milk or water (if you use canned coconut milk, you should use water)

1.  If using fresh lemongrass, remove the outer leaves and upper 2/3 of the stalks, then cut the remainder into 2-inch lengths.  If using dried lemongrass, it needs to be soaked in warm water for about 2 hours, then drained and chopped finely.
2.  Combined the curry powder, black pepper, sugar and salt with the chicken.  Let the chicken absorb these seasonings for at least 1 hour.
3.  Heat the oil and fry the potatoes over high heat, browning well on all sides.  It is not necessary to cook the potatoes completely, just brown them.
4.  Remove potatoes and set aside.  Pour off most of the oil from the pan, leaving about 2 Tbs. for cooking the chicken.
5.  Heat the remaining oil over high heat.  Fry the garlic for a few seconds, then add the bay leaves, onion, and lemongrass.  Stir briefly and add the chicken, searing lightly on all sides.
6.  Add the 2 cups water and the carrot(s); cover and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes; uncover and stir, then cook, covered, for another 10 minutes. 
7.  Add fried potatoes, coconut milk, and milk or water.  Cover and simmer for another 15 minutes.  Serve hot.  Serves 4 to 6.

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