Thursday, February 19, 2009

Veggie Might: Curry—The Very, Very Beginning

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a regular Thursday feature about all things Vegetarian.

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about (and eating a lot of) curry. There are so many countries and regions that are known for it: Thailand, the Caribbean, Japan, and of course, India. So I made one of my new year’s resolutions to explore the Curries of the World.

Well. That is a big task, my friends, not to mention somewhat misguided. I have so much to learn, and I’m a bit overwhelmed. Please bear with me.

My mind reels with questions: What makes a curry curry? How are they different? Is there a common link? Is it possible for one New York vegetarian to eat them all?

Let’s just hang out here at the beginning for today, shall we? The very, very beginning; before Maria even thinks about singing.

Not surprisingly, the word curry is an Anglicized term for kari, a Tamil word meaning either spiced sauce or black pepper, depending on who you ask. (Once source I read says kari means “flesh,” (Ed., ew) but “sauce” seems to be the consensus.)

In a nutshell, 16th to 19th century Europeans, sitting down to a meal after a long day of colonizing, said “Mmm...this is good. We wish we could eat this flavorful, awesome food all the time, instead of our boring sausage, mushy peas, and snert.

So they invented the concept of curry—meat and veggies stewed in spiced sauce and plopped on top of rice—plus its easy-to-use, turmeric-heavy powder, and sent it back to their homelands.

Trying to break out of the “curry” mold, I tried a cauliflower dish this week that was neither saucy nor accompanied by rice. This is a straight up side dish that has many of the flavor elements (cumin, ginger, chilies) one expects from Indian cooking, but none of the “curry powder.”

(Mea culpa: I did use a garam masala mix I picked up in Jackson Heights, an Indian neighborhood in Queens, but only because it was so much cheaper than making my own mix—$2.99 for 12 oz. Here is a link to a garam masala recipe for the DIYers.)

At first, I was nonplussed. As is often the case with misplaced expectations, I was also a bit disappointed. At first. But the more I ate, the more I loved.

Despite what I said I was looking for—more “authentic,” less British—deep down I expected something on the saucier side. There is no sauce in this dish. It is more akin to a stir fry than anything I’ve eaten on 6th St. or 74th St.

Once I got past the sauce thing, I realized that it tasted really good. The flavors of cumin, garlic, and ginger are present but not overpowering, it is zingy from the chilies, and the cauliflower really comes through. The texture was perfect. (I like my veggies on the al dente side.)

If you don’t like much heat, skip the chili powder. The green chilies add a nice amount of warmth. I used a few dashes myself, but I like things kicky. (PS–If you don’t have straight-up red chili powder, use cayenne pepper. American chili powder is usually mixed with cumin, oregano, and salt. Check the ingredients to be sure.)

This dish would make the perfect accompaniment to lentils and rice, or as a side to just about anything. I almost ate the whole pan at once, and like it would matter. It’s so light, with only 1 teaspoon of oil, you can eat it all guilt-free.

So we’ve begun our adventures in curry, um… I mean, flavorful, awesome food of the Great Subcontinent and beyond. There is much more to learn. Let me know if there is anything you want to know along the way. Or if you have any wisdom to share. This is going to an amazing journey.

Cauliflower with Ginger, Garlic, and Green Chilies
Adapted from Kate Pugh at International Vegetarian Union
Who adapted it from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cookery
Serves 2–3

4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely diced
1 1/2-inch cube fresh ginger root, peeled and finely diced
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp canola oil
1/2 tsp cumin seed
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1–3 hot green chilies, left whole
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp garam masala
red chili powder or cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

NOTE: It is best to cook this dish in a wok, but a large skillet will do the trick. I used my big cast iron pan.

1) Heat a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the oil to the pan. Once oil is really hot, add cumin and mustard seeds. Cook a few minutes, stirring occasionally.

2) When the mustard seeds start popping, add garlic, ginger, cauliflower, and chilies. Cook until cauliflower starts browning, 5 or 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. If things start sticking, add some water.

3) Add salt, pepper, garam masala, and chili powder (optional). Add 4 tbsp water*.  Cover. Simmer 2 minutes or until cauliflower is the texture you prefer. Serve as a side dish with dal (lentils) and basmati rice if you can keep from eating the whole bowl of cauliflower before it gets to the table.

*I brewed some ginger in water for tea while I made this dish. When it came time, I added ginger water instead of plain for a little extra kick.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving:
(2 servings) 98.5 calories, 2.8g fat, $0.71
(3 servings) 65.7 calories, 1.9 g fat, $0.48

4 cloves garlic: 16.8 calories, 0g fat, $.05
1 1/2-inch cube fresh ginger root: 13.5 calories, 0g fat, $.05
1 medium head cauliflower: 144 calories, 1g fat, $.99
1 tsp canola oil: 40 calories, 4.7g fat, $0.03
1/2 tsp cumin seed: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/2 tsp mustard seed: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1-3 hot green chilies: 18 calories, 0g fat, $.16
1/2 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $.02
freshly ground black pepper: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp garam masala: negligible calories and fat, $.02
red chili powder: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/4 lemon (juice): negligible calories and fat, $.025
TOTAL: 197 calories, 5.7g fat, $1.43
PER SERVING: 98.5 calories, 2.8g fat, $0.71 (2 servings)
65.7 calories, 1.9 g fat, $0.48 (3 servings)


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