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‘660 Curries’ an inspiring cookbook

Wed., May 7, 2008

Students of Indian curries – or those who would like to become one – will find inspiration in Raghavan Iyer’s new “660 Curries.”

The cookbook, Iyer’s third, offers an impressive array of curries from the traditional curries of his native Southern India to contemporary curries he’s created as a chef, author and teacher in the United States.

The book explores the origins of the dishes, the intricacies of the spices in each curry and offers practical ways to make the most authentic dishes at home.

You’ll never reach for another curry powder again after reading Iyer’s chapter on spice blends and pastes.

He says cooks can extract up to eight different flavors from a single spice, depending on the technique they use in a dish. Coriander seed, for example, can be toasted and used whole for a nutty-citrus flavor, toasted and ground for an entirely different flavor profile and bouquet, roasted in oil for a pungent-smelling, smoky quality or simply used whole in a curry for a subtle touch to a curry.

His intricate descriptions of the process in each recipe won’t leave you guessing about preparation details.

Iyer doesn’t stop with curries. The final chapter, Curry Cohorts, will help cooks round out curry-centric meal with rice, bread, chutneys, raitas, desserts and drinks.

Here’s Iyer’s recipe for Cashew Chicken with Cilantro Sauce from the book:

Cashew Chicken with Cilantro Sauce (Dhania Murghi)

Iyer writes: “Even though the curry has an abundance of cilantro, the long simmering yields a mellow incarnation of this controversial herb. For an unusual combination, ladle it over fresh-cooked noodles tossed with olive oil.”

2 small red onions; 1 coarsely chopped, 1 cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

1/4 cup raw cashew nuts

1/4 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon Punjabi garam masala (recipe follows)

1/2 teaspoon cayenne (ground red pepper)

Pour 1/2 cup water into a blender jar and add the coarsely chopped onion, cashews and cilantro. Puree, scraping the inside of the jar as needed, until smooth, it will resemble watered down pesto.

Heat the oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring, until it is light honey-brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour in the cilantro-cashew puree and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated. The sauce should be a darker green, with some of the oil starting to separate around the edges and on the surface; and a thin coat of browned onion-cashew past will have formed on the bottom of the skillet.

Add the chicken strips and stir-fry until the meat is seared and the brown layer on the bottom has darkened, 2 to 4 minutes.

Pour in 1/2 cup water and scrape the skillet to release the browned layer, creating an intensely robust sauce. Stir in the salt, garam masala and cayenne. As soon as the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is no longer pink inside, 5 to 8 minutes.

Uncover the skillet; raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.

Punjabi-Style Warming Spice Blend (Punjabi Garam Masala)

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds from black pods

3 cinnamon sticks (each 3-inches long), broken into smaller pieces

3 fresh or dried bay leaves

Preheat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add all the spices and the bay leaves, and toast, shaking the skillet every few seconds, until the coriander and cumin turn reddish brown, the cloves, the peppercorns and cardamom turn ash-black, the cinnamon and bay leaves appear brittle and crinkly and the mixture is highly fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

Immediately transfer the nutty-smelling spices to a plate to cool. (The longer they sit in the hot skillet, the more likely it is that they will burn, making them bitter and unpalatable.) Once they are cool to the touch, place them in a spice grinder or coffee grinder, and grind until the texture resembles that of finely ground black pepper. (If you don’t allow the spice to cool, the ground blend will acquire unwanted moisture from the heat, making the final blend slightly “cakey.”) The ground blend will be reddish brown and the aroma will be sweet and complex, very different from that of the pre-toasted and post-toasted whole spices.

Store in a tightly sealed container, away from excess light, heat and humidity, for up to 2 months. (In my opinion, refrigerating the blend adversely affects its flavor.)

Yield: About 1/4 cup


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