Remembering a Year of Curries
Way way back in my college days in Boston, when my roommate and I rented an apartment in a student ghetto for our senior year, I discovered curries.
A boy named Jay lived across the hall, and every time he opened his door, the fragrance of exotic spices would drift out. The first weekend after we moved in, he invited us over for dinner. The vegetable-curry-and-rice meal he served us was so hot that within minutes of eating it tears ran down my cheeks. Jay found this most amusing, and offered his services in teaching me to enjoy hot food.
We soon struck a bargain. I would type his history papers (yes, I said way, way back) and he would feed me, starting with something less spicy, but gradually ramping up the flavor.
When he wasn’t studying, Jay was cooking. He got pots of food simmering early in the morning, working his magic on a tiny alcove stovetop, next to which he kept dozens of small bowls of spices – dried chili peppers, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, curry leaves. He would grab pinches of this or that, roast them in a dry frying pan, grind them in an old coffee grinder, and add them to his sautéed veggies along with ground turmeric, ground cloves, and ground ginger.
From Jay I learned that while premade curry powder is a convenience, curry masters make their own individual spice blends to create unique flavors and pride themselves on cooking many different kinds of curry.
We started to host Friday night curry parties, keeping the doors to both our apartments open and filled with kids. Sometimes guests spilled out into the hall. We hung up a donations box, and once a week took a bagful of coins to the nearby Finast market, where Jay picked out the best garlic, onions, eggplant, cauliflower, frozen peas, lentils, rice, and bargains from the day-old cart.
True to his word, Jay made me some very tame curries at first, and then gradually ramped up the spices, so that by New Year’s I could eat everything he made…and enjoy it.
After graduation, Jay moved back to New York and I lost touch with him. Yet when I make a curry today, I always think of that year.
Allston International Vegetable Curry
You can use any fresh or frozen vegetables you have on hand in this easy, quick curry. Chop them quite small so they will release maximum flavor. Serve with brown rice, course bulgur, quinoa, farro or freekeh.
2 teaspoons coconut oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 shallot or small onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 orange bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1(14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
½ cup light coconut milk
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups sliced Swiss chard or spinach
Heat the coconut oil in a large pot. Add the carrots, shallot, garlic, celery, and peppers and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables soften. Sprinkle on the curry powder, cumin, and Aleppo pepper and cook, stirring several times, for two minutes longer, until the mixture is very fragrant. Add the tomatoes, coconut milk, chickpeas, and frozen peas, bring just to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Add the Swiss chard, cook for two minutes more, and serve hot.
Yield: Serves 6-8