When I started learning how to cook more than thirty years ago, culinary education was hard-won. Gruff French chefs were reluctant to give up cooking secrets, culinary school wasn’t considered a mainstream education choice, and gourmets were usually a little stuffy.
The world has changed, and certainly learning about cuisine has changed. As an example, I’m currently fascinated with all things related to Indian food. Recently, I happened to tune in to a public radio station and caught an interview on curry with chef educator Raghavan Iyer. He is the author of a book entitled “660 Curries,” published by Workman Publishing Company. As soon as the program ended, I hopped onto a website and ordered his book. In about three days, it arrived at my remote lodge 200 miles down the Iditarod Trail. Another example of how the world has changed that seems pretty amazing.
Curry is a staff and guest favorite at the lodge. We buy coconut milk by the case and it is now a permanent staple on the pantry shelf (for what it’s worth, I’ve recently discovered organic coconut milk). I learned from Iyer’s book to never buy those small pre-blended spice bottles found in the grocery store labeled “curry”. These are too bland and generic to offer correct flavors. I also learned from him that any spice can really be used in multiple ways, offering different flavor notes: spices can be prepared whole or ground, toasted in a dry pan, cooked in oil, or used in a raw form, all of which changes the flavor and texture of the spice. Armed with a small electric spice grinder (which is really just an inexpensive coffee grinder designated for spices only), I dove into Iyer’s 800-plus-page tome.
It seems, at a glance, that most Indian curries have a few similarities. Curry is loosely defined as any dish that is covered in a sauce or gravy that is rich in spices and herbs. Turmeric, cumin and coriander seem to make frequent guest appearances as well as ginger, garlic and red onion in most Indian-style curries.
One disadvantage of perusing a book with 660 curry recipes was that I couldn’t make up my mind which to try first. Today, in the end, I just kind of jumped in and concocted a curry dish that seemed to work with what was going on in the kitchen at the time, using Iyer’s basic principles.
I had a nice bright silver salmon in the fridge. I filleted the salmon and removed the skin. Next, I grated (I just used a regular old box grater) a tomato and a red onion. I put these into a medium saucepan over medium heat and stirred until the moisture was released and evaporated from both the tomato and the onion. This technique concentrates flavor. I added in some grated ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, paprika, and cayenne pepper. I cooked the spices until they were fragrant, which took just a few minutes. Then, I added in some fresh lemon juice. After a moment, I added in a bit of canola oil and kind of fried the spices in the oil. Finally, I added in coconut milk. The whole operation went pretty quickly. It seems to me a perfect fast food dish.
When the curry was well blended, I dropped small cubes of that silver salmon into the just-simmering sauce. The salmon poached in the sauce almost instantly. I decided to serve my curried salmon as an appetizer on small rice cakes –seasoned cooked rice pressed into a sheet pan and chilled, cut out into small rounds. They were a big hit.
A few of the recipes that sound interesting to me in Iyer’s collection that I hope to try soon are lentil dumplings, minty coconut chicken strips, tea and ginger simmered chickpeas, hot chili dumplings with buttermilk, and there’s a saffron-rose sauce I just have to try.
Here’s my version of the salmon curry I made today. I hope I haven’t offended any regional culinary sensibilities by creating my own 661st curry combination. If I weren’t making this as an appetizer, I’d add in just a little chicken stock to loosen the curry sauce a bit.
- 1 pound Alaska salmon
- ½ of a small red onion
- 1 fresh tomato
- 1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 cups coconut milk
- Skin the salmon and remove any pin bones. Trim the belly meat and any thinner edges to create a fillet that is uniform in thickness. Cut the fillet into one-inch cubes. Set aside.
- Grate the onion on a box grater using the medium holes. Grate the tomato until all that remains in your hand is the skin. Discard the tomato skin. Add the onion and tomato into a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until the liquid begins to evaporate, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the garlic, cayenne, cumin, coriander, paprika, and the turmeric. Cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the spices are aromatic. Add in the lemon juice. Stir for an additional 1-2 minutes. Add in the canola oil and continue to stir until the oil is colored from the spices, about 1-2 minutes. Pour in the coconut milk and stir well, lowering the heat slightly. The milk should come just to a light simmer.
- Drop the salmon into the curry and, with a slotted spoon, remove after 1-2 minutes. Serve the salmon over rice (either molded like I prepared it, or loosely mounded) with extra curry poured over the top.