I’m baaaaack! Did you miss me? I spent three & a half weeks in Brazil, but it seems like months: everything is so green and lush at home, strawberries have come and gone (and maybe cherries too?), when I left school was still in session, but now it’s after the 4th of July and summer is in full swing.
First things first: did you see the game yesterday?? My, oh my, oh my. Poor Brazil. I feel somewhat guilty (like somehow, if I had stayed, Brazil could have held the Germans to “only” a 5 – 0 shellacking), but also somewhat glad that I escaped before I had to suffer through that game in Copacabana. And yet, in the unrelenting way of world football, Brazil’s dashed dreams are set aside as we prepare for the other semi-final this afternoon and the Big Game on Sunday.
I traveled all over Brazil while following the US team during the Cup: 10 flights, 9 cities, 4 matches and lots and lots of bad beer and french fries. Easily one of my favorite stops was Serrambi, a coastal resort town at the tip of Ipojuca. A group of us rented a lovely house there, with the beach lapping right against the house, a pool, and a fabulous covered bar area, complete with kitchen, in which my partner in culinary crime & I whipped up many a meal during our stay.
By the time we reached the Serrambi house, most of us had been traveling in Brazil for 10 days or more. Brazilian cuisine, like much of Central & South America, is heavy on meat, rice and beans, not so much on fresh vegetables or salads. I think you find this a lot, really, most places you travel: eating out, especially in the bar/pub/casual restaurant venue, tends to be focused on heavy, rich, filling foods – meat, starch, fat. It doesn’t really reflect how people cook at home, no matter where you travel. I’m here to tell you that it only takes about a week of the french-fries-and-Skol diet for your body to start seriously craving a vegetable – any vegetable.
Enter traveler’s vegetable curry. It’s easy, even in a limited one pot-one knife-one spoon rental kitchen. It’s quick. It can feed a crowd. It’s cheap. It’s eminently adaptable to whatever ingredients you can find. It’s a vegetarian dish that even the most dedicated carnivore will love. Best of all, once you’ve made it a couple of times, you’ll easily be able to whip it up off the top of your head and adapt to taste on the fly.
Only two things are really essential to a traveler’s curry: curry powder and coconut milk. I’ve found prepared curry powder in the unlikeliest of places (which always seems to be labeled “curry” regardless of the local language), but if you can’t find it, you might try making your own version; cumin, coriander and turmeric are ubiquitous in many parts of the world. Of course, finding a way to grind the spices in your rental kitchen might be the biggest challenge of all. Coconut milk also pops up in the strangest places, but if you can’t find any, you could try adding some boiling water to dried coconut flakes, then whipping in a blender or food processor.
Other than curry & coconut milk, you really only need vegetables: great, whacking handfuls of them. Onion, garlic, ginger, carrot, peppers, chile, green beans, asparagus, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale and potato, leafy greens, root veg: in my time, I’ve curried ’em all. Tropical fruits also go nicely in a curry: lime, of course, but also lemon or other citrus fruits, mango, pineapple, passion fruit or melon, even apple or pear. My version in Serrambi included mango juice, to sweeten up the somewhat bitter curry powder, and chunks of fresh pineapple. In South Africa I made a version with chick peas, peanut butter, baby corn and some random African chile powder mix. It really is the best kind of kitchen sink cooking.
As outlined below, for about two cans of coconut milk, I estimate about 6 cups of chopped vegetables and about 2 – 3 tablespoons of curry powder. Of course, this all has quite a bit of leeway and you should taste and adjust all throughout the cooking process. Save a bit of your coconut milk and curry powder for adjustments at the end, and remember to add heartier vegetables first, then add more delicate vegetables at the end of the cooking time, and any fresh herbs stir in off heat. My last piece of advice? Keep your fingers well away from the serving dish once the curry is finally ready and reserve a portion for the cook: you have no idea how quickly it will disappear!
- 3 tbsp olive oil or ghee
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- one 3-inch section fresh ginger, grated (no need to peel)
- 4 – 5 small green Thai chiles, coarsely chopped, with or without seeds
- 2 – 3 tbsp curry powder
- 2, 15-oz cans coconut milk (preferably not “light”)
- one large yellow onion, chopped
- 3 scallions, sliced, white & green parts divided
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 large yellow bell pepper, diced
- 1 large red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 lb sugar snap peas, strings peeled (blanch in boiling water and chill in an ice bath to maintain brightest green color, but I often skip this step while traveling)
- salt, to taste (if your curry powder contains no salt, you’ll need at least a teaspoon)
- 2 tbsp kaffir lime jelly (for balancing the slightly bitter curry powder; sweetening is not always necessary, depending on the sweetness of your curry and/or coconut milk)
- zest + juice of 1 lime, plus extra lime for serving
- cooked rice, for serving
- fresh cilantro, chopped, for serving
- Heat olive oil or ghee over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Add garlic, ginger and Thai chiles and fry, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add curry powder and fry, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. Add coconut milk and stir briskly until sauce is uniform and comes back to a boil.
- Add onion, white parts of scallions (reserve green parts) and carrots. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and vegetables are crisp-tender, about 10 minutes. Add bell pepper and snap peas. Taste and adjust salt. Cover and simmer until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 3 – 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings: sweeten with fruit juice, fresh fruit, honey or jam if necessary. Remove from heat and stir in lime zest + juice and green parts of scallions. Serve hot over cooked rice and garnish liberally with fresh cilantro.
- You can often find a bounty of whole spices when you travel: mustard seed, fenugreek, poppy, fennel, cumin seed, any of these would make a great addition to the curry. Add in the initial fry step with the curry powder.
- As noted above, this works with almost any combination of vegetables: I’ve outlined specifically the version I made yesterday, but go with whatever is available and/or seasonal in your locale. Don’t worry overmuch about measuring or amounts – more vegetables will simply need to cook a bit longer, fewer vegetables means more sauce for soaking up with rice.
If you’re traveling with a crowd, there won’t be any left, I guarantee. But if you’re making this at home, flavors will blend and improve over time: this is even better on the second day. Store refrigerated, rice & curry separately, for up to 5 days.
Whatever season it is where you are.