trolling through the streets of Austin, Texas (of all places) looking for a nice lunch spot, I stumbled onto a café called Hot Breads. I assumed it would be a soup-and-sandwich bakery a notch up from the nearby slew of mall restaurants.
Walking in, I was tickled to find two TV screens tuned into Bollywood songs and shows. On a wall was an Indian food menu — north, south, tandoori specialties, you name it.
Serendipity! Not only do I adore curries and Indian breads, but I also love making them at home whenever the mood strikes, whether in mid-summer or the dead of winter.
On that note, here are my very simple recipes for healthful and tasty curries, the kind you can make without grind your own spices or killing a goat for Keema Dosa (a spectacular dish served in a paper thin rolled up rice and white lentil crêpe).
Instead of lentil pancakes, which I haven’t mastered, I stick to chapattis (unleavened flatbread), which I use to scoop up the curry. Though I’ve substituted flour tortillas for chapatis in a pinch, these Indian breads are easy and worth the effort to make.
— Drop in 2 cups of whole-wheat flour, a pinch or two of salt and 2 spoons of ghee into your food processor bowl. Make a simple version of ghee, or clarified butter, which is widely used in Indian cooking, by melting half a stick of butter over low heat until it bubbles. Skim off the bubbles and then separate the clear layer below, leaving the solids at the bottom of the pan.
— Add yogurt to the mix of flour, salt and ghee and pulse until you get a firm smooth ball that is not sticky. You can also do this easily in a mixing bowl by kneading until the ball of dough is smooth. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes while you chop up a few curry ingredients.
— Have some olive oil and preferred curry powder (such as Madras) ready to go. You can also use other spices and blends such as garum masala, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander and fenugreek to supplement the curry powder, but the curry itself is fine without them.
— For vegetables, choose among sweet onions, zucchine, carrots, potatoes, garlic, eggplant, cooked lentils, or even okra (if you can find it). You may also add leftover meats such as chicken, beef or lamb (cut into dice-sized cubes), but the vegetables are the key.
Now make the chapati:
— Pinch off small pieces of the dough about the size of a golf ball and roll each one very thinly on a floured surface. Heat a large heated skillet with a bit of ghee. Carefully lift the chapati into the skillet and let it cook until you see small bubbles forming, about one minute. Flip the chapati, pressing down on their sides to encourage bubbles. Remove each cooked chapati to a plate and add more ghee to the pan before cooking each chapati. Stack the chapatis and cover with foil.
— In a large skillet, heat a good splash of olive oil and add the chopped vegetables, cooking them until golden. Clear a space in the vegetables and add another spoonful of olive oil. Add 2 tablespoons of curry powder to the oil to help “toast” it and extract the powder’s raw flavor. When the curry powder is nicely browned, add any meat and 3 to 4 cups of broth to cover. Chicken, vegetable or beef are all good.
If you happen to have good chutney, stir in a spoon of it along with the juice of a lime or lemon and cover. Simmer the curry for 30-45 minutes. I make my chutney from 3 lemons, 3 oranges (chopped fine, including all the juice), 2 sweet onions (chopped fine), a handful of raisins, a cup of brown sugar and a dash of salt.
— Stir all these ingredients together and cook over very low heat until they are shiny and smell so good that you can’t cook them any longer. I “toast” a spoon of curry powder in a separate skillet in olive oil and add this to the chutney, cooking a bit longer.
Serve with steamed basmati rice and condiments: sliced cucumbers mixed with yogurt, mint and garlic; crushed peanuts; chopped cilantro, and of course, citrus chutney.
Seem daunting? Rest your fears. The result is worth the effort.