Monday, 24 January 2011

Curry revenge (or a thank-you for all those uninvited takeaway flyers in our letterbox)

They say old habits die hard, but that’s really because they’re the ones you want to preserve. University Challenge when we’re at home on Mondays, Orange Wednesdays and Sunday night curry to name a few.
And what’s wrong with a Sunday night curry takeaway anyway? Its just want you want at the end of the week when the cupboard’s looking a little spartan and the herbs are pooling at the bottom of the fridge drawer. You’re knackered, the telly’s on. Fifteen quid well spent, surely? Well, yes - and no. Multiply that by the number of weeks in the year and you get- , well I don’t know exactly, but rather a good weekend break somewhere perhaps…

Just before Christmas, the BSG and I visited Rasa, just off Oxford Street with our friend G. (What we were doing just off Oxford Street on a Saturday night in a blizzard I don’t know, but we’d certainly go again.) This is Keralan food at its finest and it transported us away from standard takeaway fare into new realms of curry possibility. The BSG sat there, the illuminated light-bulb over his head shining like a beacon: we’d learn to make good, fragrant curries and step away from the soggy naans and the free poppadoms, simultaneously saving money and setting our palates free. For this, we’d need a good reference book (if any excuse were ever required for another cookbook).

The expert man at Books for Cooks knew exactly what was needed and prescribed 50 Great Curries of India, by Camellia Panjabi – that would keep us going for a while. Full of authentic dishes from all over the country, preceded by a comprehensive guide to all things curry and beyond, this is the book for anyone who wants to understand the spices, notes and colours that make up Indian cuisine. It doesn’t stop at the main dishes, but also explains breads, vegetable dishes, relishes and chutneys too. The book is small in size (really handy) but of epic proportions and will become indispensable; it has certainly put the joy back into Sunday evenings for us. I have already successfully(ish) attempted two, so it has the added bonus of being idiot-proof. You will be amazed how you want to make chapatis to go with everything, they are so easy.

If you are still hell-bent on the lazy, brought–to-your-door Tupperware element then why not make it in the week, freeze it and call through to whoever’s in the kitchen to heat it through? If you are still missing them, call your local curry house for a chat. But with this book in hand, I promise you’ll be reluctant to dial that number on your speed dial again. Homemade curry is a bit of an unexplored world for us, and one New Year’s resolution we want to keep.

Parsee Red Chicken Curry (Mumbai)
Serves 4

(NB: the right ingredients are key here, so stock up your cupboards before you start – the spices will last and make an interesting meal out of almost anything. Kashmiri chillies should be employed in this recipe; you can’t just use the ones from the fresh aisle of the supermarket. Believe me, I know.)

10-12 Kashmiri chillies
Half a thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, chopped (you can use tinned if you prefer)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 in cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon turmeric
8-9 cloves garlic
65 ml oil
3-4 bay leaves
1 kg chicken cut into pieces (preferably on bone)

Soak the Kashmiri chillies in a little warm water for about 20 minutes to soften and bloat.
Put the Kashmiri chillies, ginger, onions, tomatoes, cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric and garlic into a food processor and blend to a smooth paste.

Put the oil in a pan to heat. Add the bay leaves and gently fry for 1 minute. Then add the paste and stir it for 3 minutes.

Add the chicken pieces and stir for a further 2 minutes. Add 1 cup water (add more if you prefer a thinner gravy) and salt to taste, cover with a lid and cook on a very slow heat until it’s done.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Chicken, leek and tarragon pie: a golden hello

You know those promises you make at the end of an evening: you’ve all had slightly more wine than necessary and you very enthusiastically set plans in order that you fully intend to keep, but which somehow magically evaporate during the night? Well, the pie challenge wasn’t one of them.
Over a sober brunch we agreed with our friends Anna and Charlie that we should do a pie exchange; we had little idea how serious this promise was on their part until this week. Seriously, perhaps we should have all cut our fingers and mixed the blood on it – that is, if it wasn’t really gross.
Only a present like the one they gave us for our wedding could have had the BSG and me leaping up and down on the sofa. Five (yes five, just about a whole section in itself) books on every aspect of pie eating, culture and making, and a couple of pie dishes; yes, Anna meant business: it was time to get practising. So, in honour of Dad and Ari, finally landed from NYC after two days of failed attempts due to airport freeze lockdowns, I thought I’d just knock up a pie…
Well, you don’t just ‘knock up a pie’. Well, at least not the chicken, leek and tarragon pie I selected from the book called Pie (why on earth not?) by Angela Boggiano; I chose it because the picture made me want to breach the golden crust and dive right in.
First, you’ve got to poach a whole chicken with stock veg and fresh tarragon sprigs, removing the bird after its Jacuzzi simmer and reserving the stock, which you then reduce by half. (I should think that handy leftovers from a roast chicken would be as effective here, unless you have an entire afternoon you want sucking up.)
Meanwhile, sauté 2 finely sliced leeks and half an onion in oil and butter until softened, adding ¼ pint white wine and simmering to reduce by half. Add single cream and aforementioned stock in increments of a similar volume, the zest of half a lemon and some chopped tarragon. Combine with the chicken meat* and season with salt and pepper, and set aside to cool.
There are so many rules about pastry floating about that I am sure I broke dozens, but I made my rich short-crust pastry in my food processor, thus avoiding any clammy-hand-heat (a chance would have been a fine thing during the Arctic, pre-Crimbo blast). It was an utter pleasure to stand observing as the machine worked its magic and the dough was the texture of a damp builder’s sand as I gathered it into a ball. After chilling it in the fridge in clingfilm I rolled it flat between sheets of greaseproof paper (a valuable tip indeed) and draped and pressed it into the perfect pie dish. Adding the now-cooled filling, I sealed and crimped (squished) the edges together, brushing the top with beaten egg.
After 35 minutes on a preheated baking tray in the oven at 180 degrees, the pie came out crisp and golden all over, the pastry cooked perfectly (the wonder of the pie dish). The inside was velvety unctuousness, punctuated by lemon and tarragon exclamation marks.
It was almost as easy as pie…time is really what’s required here. Pies are just perfect for these winter days and I can’t wait to make more of them.
*I have to say that I stripped the bird with my bare hands once it had cooled; a bit savage maybe, but far more effective at extracting every morsel than any tool – not to mention way more fun.