Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Currying Flavour

I was not an athletically inclined or able child. Ever. I was that kid who faked head and stomach aches in gym class to sit out dodge ball or track and field. Gym teachers were forever frustrated by me and the "Please excuse" notes I'd repeatedly begged my poor mother to write me. I lacked competitiveness. I didn't care about finding my personal best; I just wanted to get by quietly with my personal adequateness. I think the activity that induced the most terror and night-before anxiety had to be the Hurdles sprint. There seemed to be a persistent disconnect between my brain and my 'jump now' impulse. I would run towards the first hurdle and either charge through it as if on a blind stampede, or stop abruptly, like an animal that knows it's going to get hit by the car. No amount of encouragement could compel me to keep trying; I got very little out of re-enacting failure.

The great thing about growing up, the thing adults were forever telling me and I was forever disbelieving, is that at some point, you'd overcome the common miseries of youth. I learned to manage my paralytic shyness, learned to make friends, learned how to go after the things I wanted in life. And now I don't get as dissuaded by failure as I did back then.

Except maybe when it comes to making curries.

I've lost count of how many times I've tried to make a decent curry. I'm not sure what keeps going wrong. It's not that they're inedible, but most of the time, the curries just end up bland. There's spice. There's heat. But there's no intense flavour. I always mistake the flavour for the physical temperature of the curry when I eat it. And then when I try it again the next day, it's still tasteless and I realize I'm stuck with about 4 quarts of it. Which I force myself to eat, joylessly, for the next week.

Last night, though, I was craving spice something fierce. I still had half a jar of curry paste in the fridge from the previous attempt, and I had some cauliflower that needed using.
I decided I'd follow a recipe, and not just any recipe. A Jamie Oliver recipe. Can you go wrong with him? I mean, he comes from a country known for its curries (Disclaimer: other than the originating countries of curry) He uses forgiving language; a 'knob' of this, a 'lashing' of that; easy enough to interpret for measurement-lax people like myself.

With the dog just walked and a dark Belgian beer poured and ready for sipping, I got started. I diced the onions, my eyes stinging and watering so much, I could barely read the cookbook. I chopped the chili and ginger and garlic; I washed and cut the veggies and opened the tins of tomatoes, peas and coconut milk. I heated the butter and oil and cooked everything till it was fragrant and bubbling cheerfully on the stove. With glee, I realized the curry smelled the way I thought curries should and it was the same colour as Jamie's in the book - surely that was a good sign?

When the rice was ready and the veggies tender, I scooped up a huge bowl for myself and topped it with some plain yogurt. And the verdict? Ding Dong! It was absolutely divine! All the elements of a good curry, real flavour and depth and heat, were present! I'd done it! I'd jumped my culinary hurdle! I forced myself to eat it slowly and forgave myself all those years of assuming failure, because maybe, just maybe, it had led me to my new-found tenacity in the kitchen. Perhaps I'd stumbled upon an alternate trajectory to success: I'd simply tired of hopelessness, and the only direction left to take was 'up'.

Here's my adaptation of Jamie Oliver's curry recipe from 'The Food Revolution':

1 fresh red chili, finely chopped
2 smallish onions, chopped
1 thumb sized piece of ginger, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp butter
2 glugs of oil (I used olive oil, but he calls for canola or vegetable oil)
1/2 jar of curry paste (I used Patak's Mild Curry Paste)
1 head of cauliflower, cut into medium sized florets
2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into cubes, about 1"
1 14 oz can of coconut milk
1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes
1/2 can of peas, rinsed well

1. Prep and chop all vegetables, open all tins, then heat up the tbsp of butter and the two glugs of olive oil over medium heat in a large pot or frying pan.

2. Once the oil-butter mix is heated, add the chili, onions, garlic and ginger and cook till softened and almost translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring often.

3. Add the curry paste to the onion mixture and stir till incorporated. Add the vegetables and stir to coat them with the paste-onion mixture - do this quickly, if you can, so the paste doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. Once coated, add the tomatoes and coconut milk and about 1/2 cup of water and stir till combined.

4. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes. Now's a good time to make some basmati or jasmine rice; follow package instructions. Once the veggies are tender and the sauce has thickened a bit, take the pot off the heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Serve on a mountain of rice with a squeeze of lemon and topped with plain yogurt and fresh cilantro, if you like. Then eat and enjoy!

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