Sunday, 2 November 2014

Spice of life

I'm a lucky woman.  I live in a city I love and I know truly wonderful people. They are interesting and fun, they have a mass of knowledge I lack and - HURRAY - they are generous with it all.  Most importantly they respond positively to the question "Can you show me how?"

My lovely friend Sabrina (mother of Miss B's also very lovely friend A) seemingly thinks nothing of knocking up meals for 18 people arriving in 3 separate sittings as her extended family call in over the weekends. She told me she and her sister-in-law used to churn out 80 chapatis twice a day when she lived in her in-laws' house. I was agog.

I've never really got to grips with Indian food. If we eat it, it comes from a jar, an insta-dinner or a takeaway. I'm more Italianate than sub-continental.  Sabrina generously agreed to teach me one afternoon.

I'll say now - she spoilt me rotten.  I'd had an accident with the bread knife the week before and had only just removed my bandage. Sabrina was concerned it might be uncomfortable for me so she'd acted as commis chef and done all the preparation.  Everything was sliced, peeled, chopped or otherwise ready to go.  It was brilliant.

Here's what I learnt:

It all starts with garlic and ginger. A full bulb of garlic, peeled, and a lump of fresh ginger half the size of my palm blitzed together into a lumpy paste -
This lives in a sealed jar in the fridge to be used as needed.

To get the curry underway, we fry chopped onions in vegetable oil.  Where I'd have gone slow and used olive oil for most meals I eat, Sabrina had the temperature much higher and cooked them until they were starting to caramelise.  

Once the onions have a fair bit of colour, a heaped tablespoon/serving spoon of the garlic and ginger paste goes in.  Cook that for a good 2 or 3 minutes.  Then the pretty bit -
Doesn't that look gorgeous?

So, a good teaspoon of turmeric (the central one) and 1 to 4 teaspoons of the chilli powder (at 12 o'clock) depending on taste. We love a bit of heat, so went for 3 teaspoons. A generous teaspoon of Basaar mix (at 3 o'clock) and a spoon or two of the seed mix, panch puran (at about half five)

Basaar spice mix is a Kashmiri spice blend.  Panch puran is an Indian - or Bengali - 5 seed mix.  There are mustard, fennel, onion (or possibly nigella?), cumin and we *think* fenugreek. Sabrina regards it as essential.  She also says she gives the kids the little black seeds - the ones we couldn't decide on as nigella or onion seeds - on a cold day to warm them from inside.

As soon as they hit the pan they the smell was AMAZING.

Sabrina says it is very important to cook the spices before adding the tomatoes. We stirred things around for a minute or two, then in went masses of chopped fresh tomatoes.
 The mix cooked at a high temperature for a good long while with the lid off, to get rid of excess water.
Isn't that starting to look good?  For the vegetable curry, that's all the cooking the sauce needs. If we were adding meat we'd have cooked it still further. For fish, we'd have cooked it down to a much thicker sauce and pureed it smooth before coating the fish in it and cooking slowly with yogurt.

However, with vegetables a bit of texture from the tomatoes is fine.

We tipped in a mass of fresh chopped carrots, courgettes, cauliflower and some frozen peas.  We could have gone for just cauli and potato to make aloo gobi, but we had for a broad mix.   We stirred thoroughly and covered the pan while the veg cooked through.

To serve, we made chapatis.  Sabrina kept an almost straight face as she watched me attempt to make these quick flatbreads.  First, she suggested I roll each lump of dough into a ball inside the flour drum, to keep from getting too sticky.  Then roll it out thin or slap it from hand to hand until it is a very thin round (ish) shape.  Slap it on a VERY hot dry pan, flip it over to cook the other side, and put on one side while you do the next one.  She can do two at once.  I could barely manage one at a time, but I had a great laugh trying.

 Not exactly a great looking chapati, is it!

I made 6 in all. I was very proud.

We topped the curry with chopped fresh mint and coriander. It was a delicious lunch - veg curry, chapatis and fresh thick yogurt to subdue the heat. I've never cooked a curry half as good.

I did take a picture of Sabrina while she was cooking, but her scarf had slipped back so that would be impolite.  If you picture a pair of women standing at the hob, one rather quiet, gorgeous and wearing a beautiful headscarf and dress and yet not splashing any food on them,  the other one much more expansive and wearing an apron with damp handprints and plenty of spice stains on, and both are talking and laughing, you've pretty much got us.  
It was a fantastic afternoon.  I'm so looking forward to making more of Sabrina's curries for the family. Saturday night 'round at mine, everyone?

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