When I first attempted to learn how to cook Indian/Bengali food, I really sucked. I did!
For instance, I thought I could skip using oil and browning onions when making curry. Because I knew that if I didn’t use oil then it would be healthier. I knew the 4 basic spices that went into a curry — ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, and chili powder, so as long as I used those and made up the oil deficit by using water that I should be able to turn out a curry easily.
I’m so ashamed. I can’t apologize enough to my dad for making him eat that pathetic excuse for chicken curry when he was visiting me the summer between sophomore and junior year. A thin, watery gravy with undercooked onions and a barrage of spices coating overcooked chicken breast pieces.
I kept at it though. My gravies still sucked, but eventually I grew confident enough to make dinner for a few of my friends — spicy baked chicken, okra, and shrimp pullao. I had learned to avoid recipes calling for the dreaded browned onion step.
My guide during these formative years? Well, of course my mom, who would write down recipes that I tucked away into pages of my cookbooks to try out later. But I also heavily relied upon a couple Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks. One of them was one that we used to have at home (I bought my own copy, I didn’t steal it from home!), another was one my mom gave me. I always liked reading the stories that accompanied the recipes, and her descriptions and explanations of the recipes made it seem like I too could make these dishes.
I kept dabbling here and there while at college, and then during graduate school, determined to become a good cook. It’s so funny, I had such high ambitions, that I would purposely pick more complex recipes to try out and skip over the more “basic” recipes, when now I skip the complicated ones and focus on the simple ones because I’m too pressed for time.
When trying to win over my then future mother-in-law by letting her know I liked to cook, I even told her I could make Kashmiri kababs, that they weren’t so hard to make, and that I could give her the recipe if she wanted. Yeah, I went there.
And then shortly after we got married, my in-laws came up to celebrate our first Eid together and I dove in, making chicken korma and rogan josh to impress them.
I guess you could say I got an A for effort, but the actual execution was not so successful. I knew the concepts and could make a passable attempt, but I was still missing something. And all this time, I was still trying to not use so much oil and couldn’t brown onions to save my life.
I don’t quite remember when it happened, but I finally realized I needed the oil and onions to make my gravies come to life. What a revelation this was! That was the missing step, what provided the body and essence of the gravies. Once I learned this, I graduated from “ehhh, it tastes okay” to “holy shit, this is GOOD!”
Over the years, I’ve really built up my Indian cookbook collection (I’ve filled a wide 3-shelf bookcase with them), but I still come back to my Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks. They’re comforting and reliable, I know I’m going to get good results from them.
She didn’t let me down on Sunday. It was cloudy and rainy the whole day, and I wanted to make some comfort food. I’d already planned on trying out her Baked Beef Curry recipe, since it was a good excuse to finally break out my wannabe fake Le Crueset dutch oven from World Market. While I’ve managed to come up with my own basic beef curry that I’m happy with, I’m always looking for a new twist or variation and this fit the bill. This recipe adapts the dum method of cooking, which traditionally entails slow-cooking food in a sealed pot, to the modern kitchen.
If you don’t have an oven proof pan, you can always do what I did when I made a similar dish of hers in grad school — cook the part on the stove in a regular pan, then put it all in a baking dish and cover tightly with foil for the baking part. The important thing is that the dish is tightly sealed so that the meat cooks in the steam generated in the pan.
Madhur Jaffrey’s Baked Beef Curry
From At Home with Madhur Jaffrey
6 tbsp. canola oil
6 green cardamom pods
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
2 lb. beef stew meat (I used beef round chunks)
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
2 cups chopped onions
1 1/4 cups yogurt (I used 2 6-oz containers)
2 tbsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ginger paste
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Heat oil in an ovenproof pan over medium-high heat — I used a 5.5 quart dutch oven. When the oil is hot, add the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks, stirring once.
3. Brown beef in batches, keeping browned pieces in a bowl.
4. Once beef is browned, add cumin seeds and let them pop before adding the onions. Fry onions until they start turning pale brown.
5. Add ginger, ground coriander, cayenne, and salt to pan, mixing thoroughly with onions.
6. Lower the heat a bit and return the beef and any accumulated juices to pan, making sure to coat the beef with the onion and spice mixture.
7. Add yogurt to pan and stir to mix. Increase heat back to medium-high, until contents begin to simmer.
8. Turn the heat off on the stove. Take a large piece of foil and cover the pan, making sure to tightly seal around the edges. Then place the lid of the pan on top and place in oven. Bake for about 90 minutes.
9. Carefully remove pan from oven and slowly take off lid and foil, making sure you don’t burn yourself with the steam. Give the contents of the pan a good stir to mix everything up, then serve.