21 November 2008

Just the same?

Dear Reader, did I ever tell you what a disproportionately large stretch of my culinary life – in relation to any other cooking ventures - I spent trying to make up a decent curry? The keyword here is ‘trying’ because I unfailingly ended up with yet another disappointment. So far, nothing remotely noteworthy, let alone praiseworthy. Truth be told, I might be not the most skillful and imaginative curry cook. How do I know it, you might ask. Be my confidant(e), Dear Reader; listen up.

I intend to tell you (briefly) about Luke. Simply put, he leaves me no chance to best him in the kitchen when it comes to curry. This is also how I figured I am hopeless with it. Or just not that good.

Luke is one of my favourite persons in the world; an entartaining, self-contained, respectable American. Luke cooks unrivalled curries; ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Harry Potter’ equally excite him.

I asked Luke the other day – why curries? With no hesitation on his part, this was his modest answer: “I tried it. I liked it. I am good at it.’ Or something along these lines. Clearly, he is very knowledgeable, this Luke. His curries – succulent, delectable, luscious, juicy, slow-cooked, spiced-to-perfection, HONEST curries – make me oblivious of the external world and also of my existentional crisis, such as, ‘Why can’t I cook just the same?’ Such is the power of a good food, I must confess. Anyway, while some grind away at laws of curry nature, the others do not seem to bother much – they just make it. Oh.

Needless to say, I am not very happy to relay to you such unflattering facts about myself, what with my continuous inability to reproduce a WOW-inducing curry. After all, it is not a rocket science, yes?

Dear Reader, finally - I might be on to something. Namely, I made a simple Thai curry dish a few days back which I am really not ashamed to mention. Now, this is not to say I’ll ever go even with Luke, a real natural, but this is just to tell – I might as well do it.

Chicken Curry with Dried Apricots

This curry dish has taken up its residency in my to-cook list since summer this year. Back in Moscow, I used to work with British people; and this nation's take on curries is well documented - I can testify. (And still, Luke from Pennsylvania and his curries stand out). This is a close-up version of a curry dish I once tried in a British home in Moscow.

(Slightly adapted from epicurious.com)

2 Tsp olive oil
½ cup finely chopped shallots
2 gloves of garlic, finely chopped too
1 Tsp minced peeled fresh ginger
1 pound chicken fillets, cut in moderately small chunks
½ cup dried apricots, diced
2 Tsp mango chutney
1 Tsp Thai red curry paste
400 ml unsweetened coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ chopped fresh cilantro, without stems

Yields 6 servings

The method is very straightforward and simple.

Heat olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add chopped shallots and garlic and saute until golden brown, about 5 mins. Stir in red curry paste and ginger and cook 1 minute. Add cut in chunks chicken fillets and saute until cooked through, approxiamtely 7 mins. Put chicken in a bowl (with tongs).
Add unsweetened coconut milk and diced dried apricots to skillet and boil uncovered over medium-low heat until mixture is reduced to 2 cups, about 15-20 mins or even a bit more. Add mango chutney and ½ cup cilantro, mix in. Return cooked chicken to skillet. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well. Garnish with remaining ¼ cup fresh cilantro.
Serve with basmati rice, or indian bread, or steamed vegetables. What's more, you can substitute chicken for other kinds of poultry or meat, or even go vegetarian. I especially like to sop up gravy-like juices from my plate with a piece of country bread. Possibilities are countless; pleasure is unlimited.

Still, could I possibly cook just the same?

10 November 2008

Morals and pears

Being a vigorous gardener, my grandmother thinks the grass is always greener on the other side, particularly if said side is her neighbour’s garden.

Every now and then, for purposes of pure investigation, she would casually pick just a few fruits or vegetables from the neighbour’s lusciously green side, study those closely, write her observations down (to make sure she remembers a right sort of vegetation in question when time arrives to plant again), and finally cook them. She practiced a very decent co-existence, you see. Apart from the times, though, when that certain neighbour acted outrageously impolitely, with throwing the weeds over the fence into our garden, or pulling apart a row of carrots my grandmother had so devotedly planted in ‘nobody’s patch of soil’ , and other sidesplitting things that could only happen between two gardeners who were so ferociously passionate about their crops. In short, he was very anal, that neighbour. So, at choppy times like these, open confrontations, flourishing arguments at the fence and all, my grandmother couldn’t think of anything else but to undertake night raids on – of course - the other side, that one behind the fence. You would expect it, wouldn’t you? I did. And what’s more, she even let me participate: we would get dressed in dark sweat suits (to mingle with the blackness of the night) and go for a brief night harvesting, filling a small basket with pears, quinces, apples, aubergines, beetroots, etc. (We didn’t feel like being picky, you understand.) Should I be ashamed of my childhood 'extravaganzas'? I think not.

On a side note, I wish to say that as a preventive measure against turning me into a tricky individual in future, I was strictly told by my grandmother not to replicate anything of the kind, not to even think of anything alike. We also prayed a lot (and still do). Eventually, I grew into a law-abiding citizen. Nevertheless, as a kid, I didn’t care much of the ethic side of life and joyfully anticipated yet another argument with the neighbour, and thus a following midnight adventure. Honestly.

Interestingly, for years I wouldn’t recall of such compromising episodes that took place in the early stages of my life. Not until last week, when I happened to poach a few stubbornly solid pears – legally bought at the farmer’s market, thank you for asking.
So exciting, isn’t it, the power of memories. Food memories too, while at that. Those pears I poached, it was not exactly a recipe my grandmother would use. Nor were they reminiscent of the neighbour's pears we treated outselves to. Even a recipe per se it was not: more of a mixing-stirring-simmering approach. With a bottle of good red, for that matter, everything seems deceitfully simple, if you ask me.

Poached Pears with Cardamom
Makes 2 servings

500 ml water
250 ml dry red wine
2 good Tsp honey
3-4 cardamom pods, cracked
2 break-your-teeth-solid pears

1. Wash and dry the pears; core them. If necessary, flatten the pears’ bottoms by cutting off their base slightly – you don’t want them to be swaying sideways in a pot.
2. Combine water, wine and honey, and bring to a simmer in a cast-iron pot/saucepan.
3. Add the pears and cracked open cardamom pods.
4. Cover and simmer at a very low flame until the fruits are soft.
5. Let cool. Cover and refrigerate; the pears keep well for a few days.

Now, another positive side-effect of this fruit dish – in a row with satisfaction and reminiscing – is its syrupy liquid that drinks (!!!) so well: a cross between a mulled wine and a Russian
medovukha, an alcoholic beverage brewed with honey.

Unbelievably good, take my honest word for it.