In WITF's Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

Food Wednesdays: Curry

Written by Donna Marie Desfor, Culinary Consultant and Chef | Nov 1, 2011 10:21 PM

There’s nothing typical when it comes to curry.  There’s no “traditional” curry from which all others came and there’s little more than a handful of spices that ties a variety of dishes, if not threads of cuisines, together.  Warm and spicy (sometimes even down right hot!) without being overly thick and heavy is, in my estimation, curry’s killer combination.  If you’ve had a good curry, you remember it; if you’ve had a great curry, you crave it.

I think that’s where the trouble for most begins:  they’ve tasted real, delicious long cooked intensely spiced (not necessarily hot) curry.  To authenticate that flavor in the kitchen, however, relies on the right ingredients, most of which are difficult to source from our ordinary markets.  Like most things, there is a range of quality when it comes to spice.  From the very generic brands to the specialty spice shops, you can find quality spice in a range of prices.  Your best bet when it comes to curry spices, turmeric, coriander, and cumin being the most typical, is to know your purveyor and smell your spices or taste your pastes before you buy.  That’s usually difficult, if not downright impossible, to do, but it will help you understand why an over-the-counter curry spice may seem more about a blast of heat than a balance of flavor.  Then again, finding fresh turmeric or fenugreek to blend your own spice can literally leave you tasting dust. 

A true curry, be it Malaysian, or Yellow or Red Thai, Punjabi or Sinhalese, is layered with flavor, tantalizing and spicy without being so hot you miss what’s behind the heat.  Finding the right spice or the right spice blend, or even the right curry paste can be a daunting task.  Focus first on finding a reliable spice purveyor (and no, the spice aisle of your local grocery store is not reliable in terms of quality or turnover).  Once you know that your purveyor is importing or buying from a world class importer then you smell.  A quality curry blend has an intensity to its aroma.  It has a sweetness to it with the pungency of pepper; you’ll also notice some floral and herbal notes in there to.  Just like wine, quality spices and spice blends have a distinctive rich nose that is anything but reminiscent of dust. 

If you choose a curry paste, be prepared to do some work.  It’s a good start, but the paste alone will need a kick of flavor, be it a primary one like coriander or cumin, or an aromatic one like ginger, lemongrass or lime.  The trick here, however, is to taste.  From there you can begin adding until you find a combination of ingredients that make your paste taste multidimensional. 

When it comes to the cooking part, I find keeping the process simple works best.  A good solid curry base lends itself to just about any combination of vegetables or meat.  But, just like soups or stews, it doesn’t matter what you put into it if the base stock isn’t flavorful to begin with. 

I now have two base curries – one a Malaysian-style curry rich in turmeric, coconut milk, onion, and ginger and the other a Thai Red curry that is more spicy, relying on chili peppers, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and galangal.  While not all Thai curries contain coconut milk, I rely on the milk to make the base creamy and thick; it’s a wonderful platform for the aromatics.  Each curry is of a world unto itself.  One more mild; the other spicy (without being intolerably hot).  And while it took a bit of experimentation and fussing over spices, blends, pastes and recipes, I’ve found a few that I can rely on over and again.  You should too.  Especially now when the season is changing, warm and spicy can be welcoming.

Try these two dishes to begin experimenting with the flavor profile of curry in your kitchen.  The first starts with a dry spice blend and the second uses a curry paste.  Substitutions are listed. 

This first dish features a spice blend from The Spice and Tea Exchange that combines ginger, cumin, cardamom, coriander, celery seed, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, pepper, and turmeric.  It is complex and mild, sweet and warm.  You can substitute a yellow curry spice blend from your spice rack, but to get a real feel for what a quality spice blend can taste like, experiment by adding in a bit of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and chili powder. 

Recipe:  Malaysian Ginger Curried Squash
Serves 4

This is a mild, slightly sweet curry that is quick and easy to make.  A vegetarian dish with the potatoes and squash, you can easily add chicken, crab or a hearty fish like sea-bass.  Turkey would be equally delicious in this curry base, which makes this a wonderful option post-Thanksgiving!

2 tablespoons TSTE Malaysian Ginger Curry (substitute a yellow curry spice blend from your spice rack, but to get a real feel for what a quality spice blend can taste like, experiment by adding in a bit of cinnamon, clove, ginger, and chili powder)
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 large sweet onions, peeled and large dice to yield about 3 cups
8 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons Garam Masala*
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice, to yield about 3 cups
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
One 14-ounce can coconut milk (unsweetened) (give the can a really good shake before opening)
1 14-ounce can chicken broth, divided use
1 teaspoon sugar
*Garam Masala is a common curry blend available at most spice counters

In a small skillet, toast TSTE Malaysian Ginger Curry (or your spice blend) over moderate heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the water to form a paste.  Set aside.

Place the onions in a large, deep skillet.  Add the oil and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and toss until translucent, about 1 minute more.  Add in the spice paste, garam masala, and fresh ground pepper and cook, stirring, until the paste is well incorporated and smooth, about 2 minutes.

Add the squash and sweet potato to the skillet and stir to coat with the seasonings. Stir in the coconut milk and 1 cup of the chicken broth and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook over moderately low heat until the squash and potato are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Season the curry with salt and the sugar.  Add in the remaining chicken broth and whisk to incorporate into the sauce.  When hot serve.  (Optional: serve over rice).


This recipe features Thai Kitchen brand Red curry paste commonly available in most grocery stores.  While I think there are better dry Thai Red curry blends that you can make your own paste with (add a bit of melted butter), I like that this brand offers two common flavor profiles green (milder) and red (spicier). 

Recipe: Curried Chicken Salad in Phyllo Cups
Serves 8 to 10 as appetizers

Finding uses for leftover chicken has become an art form in my home.  This version of chicken salad is as simple to make as it sounds.  It makes the perfect lunch when left over chicken is plentiful and a real crowd pleaser when entertaining.  The prepared phyllo cups available in most grocery stores frozen dessert section is the time saving component to this dish.  Use what ingredients you have on hand and experiment with different types of chutney’s and different spices blended into the curry pastes.  While the mayonnaise is optional (substitute an equal amount of yogurt) I find it adds a fuller bodied taste and creaminess in the mouth. 

Cooked chicken, removed from the bone and coarsely chopped
Greek-styled plain yogurt (2 % or full fat)
Major Grey’s Chutney (mild or hot depending on preference)
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Red Curry Paste (such as Thai Kitchen brand)
Fresh chopped cilantro leaves

For service
Toasted bread or fresh green lettuce
Frozen Phyllo cups (optional)

Place the chicken in a bowl.  In a separate bowl combine equal amounts of the Greek-styled yogurt and the mayonnaise–about 1/3 cup each, about 1/2 cup Major Grey’s Chutney, the fresh lemon juice, about 3 tablespoons red curry paste (to taste depending on your preference for heat), and a handful of fresh chopped cilantro leaves.  Add in some chopped cranberries or cherries and some toasted chopped almonds.  Pour just enough of the dressing into the chicken to moisten it.  Adjust seasoning.  Serve on toasted bread or in salad cups.

If serving as an appetizer:  Thaw the prepared phyllo according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Gently fill each cup with a heaping teaspoon of curried chicken.  Arrange on a platter and garnish with cilantro leaves and toasted almonds.


Recipes and photos Copyright © 2011 by Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen.  All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2011 WITF, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Published in Donna Marie Desfor

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