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Sunday, July 21

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When it isn't warm outside and you want to make yourself warm inside, eating spicy food is a sure-fire way to do just that. Living in a city surrounded by burrito joints, it isn't hard to get a spicy but tasty fix for cheap. But sometimes you just gotta branch out and try other cuisines that have panache along with their peppery flavors. Thai food can get downright hot as well, but Thai restaurants are almost as common as burrito joints.

For truly spicy and tasty dishes I find myself craving the foods served at the restaurants on West Devon Avenue around Western. Little India isn't just a great place to grab amazing sari fabric (and I do mean amazing), it's also a great place for delightful curry dishes that will leave you sweating, smiling and crying. And if you're going to fry your palate with chiles, a wonderful Mango Lassi is the perfect drink to wash it all down. I'll show you how to make a delightfully simple curry dish at home and how to make those wonderful mango drinks that soothe your scorched tongue.

The first thing you need to understand about curry is that you can buy six different brands of curry powder and none of them will be the same. Curry is a mixture of different herbs and spices based on region and on what the curry is used with. A curry with lamb may be sweeter and less spicy than the curry used with chicken. Since there is no one way to make curry you don't have to worry too much about being authentic. You can mix together any variation of cumin, coriander, turmeric (this will turn things yellow to orange based on how much you use), ginger, pepper, mace, cardamom, black cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek, nutmeg, sesame seeds, saffron and cloves. You can also add poppy seeds, cinnamon, and garlic if your palate is more used to those flavors. Since spices only last six months to a year before they start to lose their flavor, and since you probably aren't going to be making curry every week, skip the pre-packaged curry and go with what you have in that spice rack that sits underused on your counter.

Curry comes from the Indian word "kari" which means "sauce." The mixture of spices is actually called a "masala," with "garam masala" being the one I've seen the most. If you want to be authentic, you'd have to start with whole spices, grind them yourself, and then toast them in ghee, which is a clarified butter. It's more work than I'm willing to go through for an average dinner and I bet it's more than you're willing to go through as well. But by taking what you have on hand, and maybe purchasing a spice or two that you think you'll use again, and toasting your spices in olive oil, you should be able to make a wonderful lamb curry. It's lamb season, so you're likely to start finding deals on lamb at your local grocer. You could substitute beef or chicken or even tofu or seitan for the lamb. There's no right way to to do this, there's no wrong way to do this, and asking for specific directions is about as exciting as using specific directions for a leisurely Sunday walk.

Lamb Curry
1 pound boneless lamb
1 small yellow onion
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 small chile (optional, of course)
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter

Cut your lamb up into even cubes about 1" in diameter if possible. Cut half of the onion into quarters and toss the onion, garlic, yogurt, and lemon juice into a blender and puree.

Toss the dried spices (except for the corn starch, which isn't a spice anyway) into a skillet. Put about 1/2 teaspoon of oil into the pan and cook it over a high heat for about two minutes, stirring constantly.

Heating the spices encourages them to release their oils, and the oil is where the flavor is. Once you've done this, scrape your skillet into the blender, add the cornstarch and blend. Pour this mixture over the lamb, cover and marinate for two hours (and two hours only!) at room temperature, or marinate overnight in a refrigerator. (You can also add everything into a zipper bag, throw in the freezer for up to two months. Transfer the frozen bag to the refrigerator the night before you want to use it and it should be defrosted and flavorful by the time you're ready to cook.)

Once the lamb is marinated, heat some olive oil in a large pan. Slice the other half of the onion and sauté until it is soft and clear. Add the meat and the marinade and bring it to a simmer. Add the whole chile if you're using it. If you want it super-spicy, cut the pepper in half (so the capsaicin permeates the dish easier) or use two peppers.

Cover and simmer for about two hours or until the meat is tender. (You tofu and seitan fans will just want it cooked through, which means it won't take nearly as long for yours to cook -- I'd guess about a half hour.) Taste the sauce occasionally until it is spicy enough and then remove the chile.

Add salt if needed. Serve over couscous or rice. To add a pretty touch to your rice, throw a couple of strands of saffron into the pot while it cooks.

Mango Lassi (this makes one serving, multiply as necessary)
1/4 cup of plain yogurt
1/8 cup of milk (soy will work)
1/2 mango with pit and skin removed
1 teaspoon sugar to taste
sprinkle of salt and/or cinnamon on top

Put all the ingredients into a blender and blend for two minutes, pour into a glass, sprinkle garnish on top, and serve. You could also toast some cardamom seeds and sprinkle those on top. This can keep refrigerated for up to 24 hours. Making it the night before you serve it will let the flavors blend and mellow -- it tastes delicious.

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anne / March 29, 2004 9:51 AM

Thank goodness, an Indian food recipe that doesn't scare me just a little bit. I think I can tackle this one even in my itty bitty kitchen (and with my rather limited homecooked curry experience)! Thanks, Cinnamon!


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