Tuesday, September 23, 2008

At Last! a Rich Creamy Curry

I've been trying for years. Trying unsuccesfully to reproduce the thick, creamy gravy for a meat curry like they serve at good Indian restaurants, such as the 'Bombay Café and 'Mirch Masala' in Atlanta, that feature cooking from the Punjab. These are the curries where the plentiful gravy is almost better than the meat -- which is a good thing since the meat is limited and there is a lot of rice or naan bread to moisten.

As with several other breakthroughs, this one happened with a dish I made for Christina's staff meeting at St. Barts. The church leadership have happily agreed to be guinea pigs, so I get to try works-in-progress on them.

The particular dish this time is 'kofta curry', lamb or beef meatballs simmered in, no less, a rich, creamy gravy. The word kofta for meatball reaches, with slight spelling variations, from India and Bangladesh in the East, through Turkey, the Caucasus, the Arab countries, Greece and Cyprus, to as far west in Europe as the Balkan countries where the Ottoman Empire once reached. Like many food names from India to Turkey, 'kofta' is originally Persian, from a verb meaning to beat or grind. While kofta applied to meatballs, by extension it included small fried or grilled cakes of other ingredients. In Turkey it's köfte, keftes and keftedes in Greece, kufta in Croatia and Serbia.

As with many curries, the gravy in this one is trickier than are the meatballs in the gravy. A key technique is slowly frying plenty of onions, with frequent stirring, in a little oil until they are pale golden brown. The whole spices are fried along with the onions, but the garlic and ginger are not added until the onions are caramelized. Then after several more minutes of frying, as the fragrance gets fabulous, the ground spices are briefly fried in, and then the tomato and liquids. Frying the onions well before adding the garlic and ground spices causes the gravy to thicken well, and avoids having the garlic become bitter from over-frying.

This dish will serve six accompanied by basmati rice. Although wine is not typical in India, and forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan, a heavy, fruity red wine actually goes well with this, such as a Merlot, a Zinfandel, an Argentinian Malbec, or my recent favorite, a Monastrel from Spain.

Kofta (Meatball) Curry Tim

2 large onions
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 sticks cinnamon
6 whole cardamoms
4 whole cloves
4 large cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger thinly peeled
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon turmeric
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/8 teaspoon cayenne
4 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups water
1 cup canned evaporated milk (unsweetened)
2 teaspoons salt
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish

2 pounds ground lamb, beef, or a combnation, not too lean
1/2 inch fresh ginger, peeled, and pounded or finely minced
2 tablespoons cornstarch (chick pea flour or egg would be used in India)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

To make the sauce, peel and coarsely chop the onions. Fry them plus the whole spices in the oil in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir frequently and reduce the heat as the onions start to turn golden. This is a slow process, so get the onions started while preparing the other ingredients. Pound together in a mortar or mince finely together the garlic and ginger (thinly slice the ginger first). Measure out the dry spices.

While the onions are frying, mix the meat and other meatball ingredients, kneading them well. With moistened hands, shape the meat into 1-1/2-inch balls, setting them on an oiled surface until needed.

When the onions are golden colored, add the pounded or minced garlic and ginger. Fry the mixture over gentle heat 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the ground spices, and fry for a minute, stirring the dry mixture well and scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste and stir it in briefly. Finally add the water, evaporated milk and salt. Simmer ten minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding the meatballs.

When the gravy has simmered for its 10 minutes, stir it well, then add the meatballs. Do not stir the meatballs (or you will break them), but rather swirl the pan so they move around. Cover the pan. Swirl several more times over the next ten minutes. By this stage the meatballs should be firm enough to stir gently. Be sure the gravy is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Simmer, covered, another 20 minutes (total meatball cooking time is 30 minutes), stirring occasionally. The gravy should be thick but soupy. Add a little water if too thick.

Taste the gravy, and add salt if needed. (It will go on unsalted rice, so do not undersalt the curry or it will taste bland.)

The curry can be served now, or if desired, it can be stored, refrigerated, 3 to 4 days. Carefully reheat before serving, stirring so the gravy does not stick and burn on the bottom of the pan.

Serve heavily sprinkled with coarsely chopped cilantro. Accompany with unsalted basmati rice.


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