Friday, December 6, 2013

Turkey Curry

I cannot say "turkey curry" without mentally imitating Renee Zellweger's fake English accent.  There was a long, dark period in my life where - without a clue of what curry even was - turkey curry was the epitome of all the weird things that people did in places that were not America.  Without any sense of context I assumed that everything in Bridget Jones was normal British life, including the ineffable New Year's turkey curry buffet.

(I have always wondered... was it a buffet that included turkey curry as the signature dish, or a buffet of different types of turkey curry?  Tricky.  Verrry tricky.)

Around this time of year, having at last exhausted my taste for Thanksgiving leftover paninis and soups, I start to shred the remaining turkey and use it as a substitute for chicken in my everyday recipes. Originally I wasn't going to bother sharing this recipe with you, but after kicking myself all week for not taking photos of a stellar turkey biryani (pilaf) I'd made, I thought I owed you one.  It's a riff off of a basic tomato curry base that I use for chicken (for Doc) or tofu (for me).  The beauty of it is that the sauce and the meat/tofu are cooked separately, so that I can just split the sauce and then add whatever I want to each person's version.  So if vegetarian/vegan is more your style, go ahead and play with this using whatever meat substitute you like.

Scroll to the bottom for a concise recipe if you're in a hurry.

Basic Turkey Curry

Total real time:  With photos and messing around with making rice, salad, and raita at the same time, the long estimate is two hours from start to finish, most of which is simmer time.

Weirdest spice:  fenugreek leaves.

Although I was starting with fully cooked turkey, you could easily use raw turkey/chicken/tofu/protein of choice.  First off, you need to season the turkey (let's just assume that's what it is from here on out, k?).  The four big players in this curry are chili powder (use less, or none at all, according to your tastes), coriander powder, and ginger & garlic pastes.

Haven't I see those guys on the left before?

I used 2 tsp of each on about one half of a turkey breast, but keep in mind that's a rough-ish measurement.  If you have a premixed tandoori powder that you like, this would be a fabulous place to use that in place of the chili & coriander powders.

We likes it spicy.

Stir it all up together.  The oil from the ginger & garlic pastes will help the spices stick to the meat.  If using raw meat you can set it aside at this point to soak up the flavor for as much as 24-48 hours.  Since, again, this was already cooked I didn't worry about that too much.  

A not-so-quick aside:  Depending on the recipe, many cooks like to add yogurt to the marinade when cooking chicken.  This is in large part because the acidity in the dairy helps to break down the tougher fibers in the bird, acting as a kind of natural tenderizer.  I do not do that, for two reasons.  First, Doc complains even at the sight of yogurt.  Second, and more importantly, I have never mastered cooking hot foods with yogurt - especially when adding something acidic like tomatoes - without the whole thing curdling.  After a few dozen ruined dinners I gave up on that.  Besides, with the amount cooking time involved the heat breaks down everything sufficiently anyway.

Getting back on track, they turkey goes into a saucepan with a small splash of Oil of Choice (olive, ghee/clarified butter, baby) on medium-high heat until the meat is cooked.  Again, as this was precooked turkey, about 5 minutes was enough to cook the spices.  If "cooked spices" is as weird to you as it is to me, imagine the flavor difference between raw and roasted garlic.  More on this in just a second.

If using chicken or tofu be sure to cube it first.  That will save you trouble later.

When everything is cooked sufficiently, set the turkey aside on a plate and return to the empty saucepan.  If you've got a bunch of spices and whatever glommed onto the bottom do not panic.  We'll be scraping those up in a minute and it will only enhance your dish.

Okay, so here is perhaps the #1 Biggest Thing I Struggled With when it comes to south Asian cooking.  You've heard that the cooking is "spicy," and if you're anything like me you read that to mean "hot" rather than "full of different spices."  Let me share with you something I've learned the hard way: this kind of cooking has an entirely different relationship with spices than you're used to.  Back when I started I'd read recipes that said to roast or cook the spices first, then add X, Y, or Z main ingredient, and I would panic.  Spices go in later, once the food is in the pan.  That's the way God intended it to be.  Spices first, then food, is just chaos.

Embrace the chaos, my friends.

So to start the curry sauce, first put in about 1 tablespoon of Oil of Choice.  Let it get warm on medium heat.  When the oil is shimmery, add in about 1-2 teaspoons of cumin seeds.

Right about now you will want to scream because everything you know is wrong.  Take a deep breath.

Quick aside:  cumin seeds and cumin powder are not the same thing.  Be sure you have the seeds.

Hint: they look seedy.

In around 30 seconds, possibly sooner, you will notice two things:  (1) a warm, toasty aroma, and (2) sizzling.  That means you're ready for the next step.  More than a minute or so of roasting the cumin seeds and you'll see them start to burn.  This a no-no.  If you burn them, toss them because it will ruin your whole dish.  Truuuuuust me on this (she said knowingly).  It can also happen if your oil is too hot, so be careful.

When your seeds are toasted - or fried, I guess, if we're being truthful - toss in about 1/2 to 1 whole chopped onion.  In a lot of curries it's key to mince the onion as small as possible so that it sort of "melts" into the sauce, but we're going to cheat later and blend this bad boy together, so I just used frozen onions instead.  Frozen onions add about 10 minutes of cooking since they're full of moisture, but it saves me 10 minutes of chopping and that's a fair trade in my mind.  Stir the onions around with the cumin seeds and let it cook until you've got them kinda translucent / mushy but not browned.  

Next I had a handful of cashews (totally optional, but gives it a nice nutty flavor), and roughly 2 teaspoons each of those four main players that we saw back at the beginning: coriander, chili powder (again, optional), and ginger & garlic pastes.  Aren't you glad you have a bunch on hand already?

When you add the spices you'll notice that the onions kind of bind up together into a mess.  A splash of water or stock will help release that and keep your spices from burning.  Again, the idea is to "cook" the spices without burning them.  

So weird!  Hang in there, it gets better in just a second!

Next up is a small handful of fenugreek leaves.  This is almost certainly the weirdest ingredient in the recipe, and something I did without until about a year or so ago.  I wish I hadn't waited so long!  Ultimately I had to order them online because I couldn't find them in stores around me.  If there's a south Asian grocer near you, give it a look.  Either way I give you permission to ahead and skip it the first time around if you don't have any handy.    

Crush them up a bit between your hands before adding.  Smells great and helps release the flavor.

Medium-length aside:  In general, south Asian grocers are an excellent place to buy spices in bulk, including things you might use often like cinnamon and black pepper.  They tend to sell them in bags that are anywhere from a few ounces to a pound or more, and you'd pay about the same for a pound-sized bag as you'd pay for a 4 ounce container at your regular grocery store. 

Okay, now we add the tomatoes.  I'll admit to you that I did not add enough tomatoes to mine and then had to cheat later.  All summer I'd been using tomato puree I'd frozen from our garden tomatoes, and this is the first recipe I'd made since June with store-bought tomatoes.  I'd say about 2 chopped tomatoes per person will do ya, plus maybe one for good luck.  If using canned, go straight for crushed tomatoes (not tomato sauce!!) to save you some trouble.

What you're shooting for is a tomato sauce with some onion & spices in it.  I know people who just buy canned spaghetti sauce and then tweak it.  It's totally up to you.

Okay, now add another splash of water or stock (I used leftover turkey stock), enough to go about halfway up to the top of your tomato-and-other-stuff pile, turn the heat down to low, and let it simmer for up to an hour.  It honestly takes that long for all the spices, tomatoes, and other stuff to sort of seep into each other and cook properly.  The tomatoes will release their juices as you go, so you may end up with more liquid than you started with.  This is a-ok.  Add more water/stock if you need to, stirring every 5-10 minutes to keep it from burning on the bottom.  At the end you should have something resembling a mush.

The green bits are chilis that I added for funsies.  Not a necessary item.

Now, this bit is very important.  I used to skip this step and it totally ruined the flavor.  We are going to blend the tomato mush using either an immersion blender or a standing blender.  Why?  Because otherwise you have a soup, not a curry.  Even if you throw all this in the slow cooker and have a day-long standoff with it, you still won't get the right consistency.  Believe me on this.  Blending is the way to go here.  The thing is, you need to let this mess cool for about 20 minutes if using a standing blender, because you do not want to be blending boiling liquid.  (1) It could cause your blender to crack; and (2) if it bursts you're going to be covered in boiling tomato juice.  Ain't nobody got time fo' facial burns.

You should now have an empty saucepan yet again.  Return the turkey to it, dial it up just barely above a simmer for a minute or two just to warm up the turkey, and then pour your blended sauce over it.  Or, if you've used an immersion blender, just add the turkey into the sauce.

Mmmm, tomato smoothie.

Mine up there does not look right for two reasons.  First, it's too thick.  Second, the tomatoes I used weren't ripe enough and I needed another 1-2 more to get a good tomatoey flavor/color.  So I had to take a secret step correct it.


To thin things out, I used turkey stock, but forgot to take a photo of that so I put the carton of vegetable stock in the photo to remind me.  The cream is entirely optional.  I add a dash for fun, you can skip it without any problem.  I also at this point added about 1/2 teaspoon each of garam masala and salt to give it some depth, because the turkey needed some oomph. Depending on whether you use stock, you might not need salt at all.

It's food!

I let it simmer at this point for another half hour or so, just to "cook" the garam masala and let the turkey get comfortable in the sauce.  This isn't strictly necessary so long as you have fully-cooked meat.

And there you have it!
Seen here over rice, with a cilantro garnish.

And here with raita and an orange-olive salad that I added some beets to.

Up next:  mackerel poached in miso sauce (さばの味噌に).

The Busy Cook's Recipe
  1. Coat cooked turkey (or raw chicken/tofu) with 2 tsp each of coriander, ginger paste, garlic paste, and red chili powder to taste.  Alternatively, omit coriander & chili powder and replace with tandoori spice mix.
  2. In a medium saucepan, cook the turkey in 1 tsp of oil on medium-high until thoroughly heated/cooked.  Set aside.
  3. Add 2 tsp oil to the pan on medium-high heat.  When shimmering, add 2 tsp cumin seeds and let roast for 30 seconds or until fragrant.
  4. Add roughly 1/2 cup chopped onion to the pan, stirring frequently for approximately 5-10 minutes until onion is soft but not browned.
  5. When onion is softened, add roughly 1/4 cup roasted cashews, and 2 tsp each of coriander, ginger paste, garlic paste, and red chili powder to taste.
  6. Immediately add a generous splash of water or turkey/chicken/vegetable stock, enough to coat the bottom of the pain and prevent burning.  This also helps to deglaze any spices left over from cooking the turkey from Steps 1-2.  Allow to cook 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently.
  7. Add roughly 2-3 teaspoons of fenugreek leaves, crushing them between palms before adding to the sauce.  Optional: add one chopped green chili, to taste.
  8. Add 3-4 cups diced ripe tomatoes or 1 can crushed tomatoes.  
  9. Add 1-2 cups water or stock of choice, enough to cover the bottom of the pan with about 2-3 inches of liquid.  Add more as needed to keep the mixture soupy.
  10. Reduce heat to a simmer (low heat), cover, and let cook for up to an hour, stirring every 5-10 minutes.
  11. Remove from heat, let cool 20 minutes.
  12. Blend sauce, using extreme caution not to blend hot liquid (wait until cooled to lukewarm, adding ice cubes if necessary).  
  13. Return sauce and cooked turkey to the saucepan, turning heat up slightly to barely higher than a simmer (not quite medium heat).
  14. If desired, add a splash each of stock and cream to thin out the sauce.  Garam masala and salt may also be added at this time, to taste.
  15. Let cook on low heat for up to half an hour to let flavors infuse the turkey.  
  16. Serve hot.

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