Don’t worry, have a pinch of curry

One of my best friends (we’ll call her “The Gray Lady” as she is a particularly ardent New York Times devotee) was mourning the end of Mark Bittman’s column, “The Minimalist” with me when we decided to pay him homage and make one of his recipes together. Thankfully Bittman already did us the favor of choosing his top 25 from the hundreds of recipes he’s written about.

Our search was further narrowed by time constraints: we were meeting at Whole Foods after work to shop, cook, and devour. And while I am constantly shocked by people who eat dinner at 5:30 or 6 (anathema to the New Yorker), eating after 9 is a bit late for me.

We settled on a lamb stir-fry that promised to be quick, but it called for an ingredient neither of us had in our pantry: cumin seeds. I was sure that Whole Foods would have them and we made our way to the spice aisle.  Panic stricken, we scanned the rows of spices again and again, thrown off by fennel seed and coriander seed and ground cumin. We were just about to give up and use ground cumin (though Bittman specifically notes its inferiority in this dish) when I saw a recess on the top shelf of spices. Though we jumped up and down trying to catch a glimpse of the pushed-back spice, The Gray Lady and I are both a few inches shy of 5’5″ and I eventually had to commandeer a passing stranger, who, to our delight, reached into the shelf and came out with a treasure.

We split the cost of groceries, and The Gray Lady offered me the bottle of cumin seeds to take home. I insisted that having never used or needed this somewhat odd ingredient before (though I use cumin often enough) it might as well stay with her. Yet the very next day, I was back at Whole Foods purchasing a prized bottle of cumin seeds!

Why, you ask? Because our dinner was actually so good that I ended up making almost the exact same thing again the very next night, this time for Max to enjoy, as he had not been invited to our girls’ night in. Aren’t I the sweetest?

Lamb has always been a special treat for me, but I don’t cook it very often. Not only is it usually expensive–although the cut used in this meal, the shoulder, is quite cheap–but its flavor is so…particular, that the idea of eating it often seems a bit overwhelming to me. So I decided to recreate this meal with cubes of beef instead of lamb and was delighted to discover that it was just as tasty!

If you like lamb, definitely try this recipe, especially if you can get lamb shoulder. When The Gray Lady and I made it, we used shoulder blade cuts instead, and while it tasted just as good (I’ve since made the recipe four or five times), it’s a pain to remove the fat and bones while still getting nice cubes of meat. When using beef, just try to get a mostly lean cut. Even stewing cubes will work, if you trim them a bit.

Bittman’s recipe, which he says is based on a Mongolian one, calls for crushed red pepper flakes. If you are a spicy food lover, then by all means, pile them on. But for me, the heat from peppers just blocks out all the other flavors from the meal. Since I didn’t need to impress anyone with my machismo, I left them out. However, as you might have guessed from the title of the post, I did find a way to bring a little more nuance into the flavor: curry powder.

Okay, at this point, I think we’re looking at a dish that bears little resemblance to anything served in Mongolia. Replacing the lamb with beef, replacing the peppers with curry, and stir frying instead of grilling or roasting…well, who cares? It’s incredibly tasty.

Curry powder, as it turns out, is a pretty imprecise spice blend. I was aware that curries existed in different forms throughout the world, especially because Thai restaurants usually have green, red and yellow curries on their menu. Indian curry, of course, is a different thing but I had been under the vague impression that some kind of Curry plant was the root of all of these… Completely incorrect!

The curry powder that we buy here is usually a blend of turmeric, coriander cumin, red pepper and fenugreek. There might be some ginger and garlic in there too, and there can be a whole plethora of other spices in varying amounts, among them cinnamon, cardamom, mustard seed, and on and on. How spicy a curry is usually depends on how much chili powder and green chilies go in. So I guess the next step for me will be figuring out ratios for the perfect all purpose curry blend!

In the meantime, alter the recipe below as you see fit. Unless you’re a vegetarian, I will be surprised if this doesn’t crop up in your week night meals from now on. So easy, so fast, and so delicious!

Lamb/Beef Stir-Fry with Rice (for two)

1/2 lb lamb shoulder (if you can only find the blade, get a little extra because after cutting out the bones and fat you’ll be sad on how little is left). Alternately, use a lean cut of beef.

2 tablespoons cumin seeds (more on that later!)

2-3 minced garlic cloves

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon soy sauce

optional: 2-3 chopped scallions

2 tablespoons peanut oil or canola (or something neutral)

1 cup white rice, cooked to package directions

Directions

1) Chop the meat into small cubes, no more than about a cubic inch or you’ll have to cook it too long. Toss it well with the soy sauce, curry powder, and garlic.

2) Toast the cumin seeds in a pan without oil for a few minutes, until they become aromatic and start to brown. If you have a mortar and pestle, you can smash some of them a little to provide a more interesting texture. Empty them over the meat. Bittman insists on using whole seeds, and after making the recipe a few times, I can see why. The texture and flavor is just so much nicer with the real seeds. And since buying the bottle, I’ve found new uses for them too, like adding a few to salad dressing, or roasting cauliflower with a spoonful. Any place that you could use ground cumin, the seeds are an alternative for a crunchier texture and fresher taste.

3) If your rice is still cooking, hold off on doing anything except chopping the scallions (if you’re having those) because the meat will cook up very quickly.

4) Heat the oil in the pan until the oil is very hot but not smoking. Add the meat and let it sear for a minute, before stirring and letting it sear on other sides.

After a couple of minutes, add the scallions. Don’t let the meat cook more than about 5 or 6 minutes. You can add a little water so there’s more liquid to pour over the rice (Bittman suggests 1/4 cup).

Serve over rice, and you’re finished! You can garnish with the green part of the scallion, sliced thinly, or Mark Bittman suggests cilantro. This dish pairs very well with broccoli.

Well, if that photo didn’t convince you, I don’t know what else I can do! It is just such a quick and easy way to make an interesting meal. The meat is always shockingly tender (yes, even when using stewing beef!) and having meat with rice is a nice alternative to the usual meat/fish with potatoes/pasta that I rely on so much.

And customize it however you want! I’ve tried it with coriander seeds and mustard powder already, but the above recipe has been the best for me. Happy cooking!

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