The creation of this week's somewhat exotic Tribune Cooks dish began with a trip to the somewhat less exotic Chicken Coop for some good old-fashioned fried chicken.
While waiting for our take-out order from the Cortland restaurant, my mom and I began discussing meals we had on various vacations. My parents' recent trip to Mexico offered dishes of plantains, while on my recent trip to Chicago, I tasted a chicken curry dish (not to mention the obligatory pizza and Hot Doug's hot dog).
When my mom asked what exactly is in curry, I found myself stumped in trying to explain what it was. Curry is not really an ingredient, but a style of cooking. The word translates loosely to the Tamil word for "sauce," as curry is prepared traditionally as a side dish for rice or noodles. Curry paste and powder are mixes of traditional spices such as tumeric, cumin and coriander. Along with the base of curry paste, powder and coconut milk, a curry can contain pretty much any meats or vegetables one wants to throw in there, making for a dish pretty much anyone can enjoy.
Having enjoyed perhaps a half dozen curries in my life, no two remotely similar, I thought I could prepare a batch and serve it to some hungry relatives.
For my guinea pigs, I opted for the mild curry paste to ensure no one hallucinated or ran choking from the table. The heat can be kicked up or down, depending on preference, with chilies and powders. Chicken is pretty universal in my family, so I opted for chicken thighs, which are pretty economic and meaty. Pineapple curries always look colorful and exotic in photos, and the tart pineapple goes well with the sweetness of the coconut milk. As for the veggies, the last bits of whatever was left in the freezer went into the pot. Waste not, want not, yada yada yada. I prepared a pot of basmati rice to serve as a landing strip for the curry.
I yanked the skins from the chicken thighs in order to keep the dish as grease-free as I could. Yogurt is often substituted for coconut milk in order to cut calories, but I was a first-time currier, so I stuck to the basics. Curry is an adaptable meal, both in ingredients and in nutrition, so it can always be tailored for specific diets and tastes.
Pineapple Chicken Curry
2 tsp curry powder
2 tsp curry paste
1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk
1 tbsp. packed brown sugar
1 cup chicken stock
6 chicken thighs, skin removed
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. chicken stock
3/4 cup chopped, or 1 can pineapple
Heat curry powder and paste in a medium saucepan until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add coconut milk and mix well, and then add brown sugar and chicken stock.
Arrange chicken thighs in saucepan, and then add vegetables. Bring mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer 25-28 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.
In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and chicken stock. Stir cornstarch mixture into the curry, and then add pineapple.
Cook another 5-10 minutes until the sauce thickens.
Serve with prepared rice noodles or basmati rice.
On cue, right after the spices and milk went in, the guinea pigs came hovering over the stove; "Ooh, that smells good!" It did - and looked good too. The red and orange colors of the sauce swirled with the green and orange vegetables, making you realize why they always put pictures in Indian menus; curry looks as good as it sounds on paper, and tastes even better. The basmati, which means "fragrant," cooked with a little salt and butter - 1 cup rice, 3/4 cup water. When it came time to add the cornstarch to the curry, I found that it didn't thicken up the sauce as much as I would like, so I added another batch of the cornstarch/stock mixture, and that did the trick.
I served the curry family-style, on a big platter on top of the bed of basmati rice, as the guinea pigs swooped in with forks and began sampling. My aunt staked claim to the pineapple chunks, while my mom tried a tender chicken thigh. Dad had some of this and that, while pointing out the rice was a little undercooked (thanks, Pop) but would soften up upon reheating. Whatever bit they ended up with, everyone enjoyed this patchwork dish. Whatever style you sample, a curry showcases the best ingredients Asia has to offer.