Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Friendship Restored and a Curry Recreated

I reconnected with an old friend this summer. While we were once inseparable pals, we had grown up and drifted apart. Before this summer, we hadn’t spoken in over three years. The realization of this fact is what prompted me to reestablish a connection with this friend—it was too sad to think that after years of being so close, we could have gotten to the point where we weren’t even talking anymore. We met for coffee, the first of a few meet-ups we had over the course of the summer, occasions for long conversations, catching up on what we had missed in each other’s lives during the preceding years. One of the things that we discovered during our conversations was a mutual appreciation for good food and finding interesting local restaurants. So, for our next get-together, my friend brought me to one of her favorite spots, a wonderful vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres.
 As with a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, the menu was intriguing, varied, and original. Maybe I just don’t eat out at meat-free places all that often, but I am always amazed at the originality I see on the menus of places like these—tempting combination of fruits and vegetables, beans and sprouts, tofu and tempeh, and grains and seeds. That said, a cursory glance at the menu wouldn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary: it contains salads, sandwiches, some chilis, as well as their famous “bowls” (basically, ingredients thrown together in a bowl), and some meat-free burgers. It is the manifestations of these more or less standard categories that are really worth mentioning. I was tempted by sandwiches of grilled eggplant and hummus, bowls of bok choi, pickled carrot and daikon, coriander, Thai peanut sauce, and grilled tofu or tempeh, and burgers stuffed with Portobello, caramelized onions, and chipotle vegan mayo. They have something called veggielox, their vegan version of salmon lox, to be found on a number of salads and sandwiches. They are also famous for their smoked coconut which supposedly tastes like bacon—you can try it on their vegan version of a BLT. Everything looked great, and I hadn’t even gotten to the smoothies and fresh juices.

I finally settled on a mango lassi and the Chana—a chickpea curry wrapped up in chapati, a South Asian flatbread, a lot like a tortilla. Maybe it was the company, or maybe it was the fact that I had accidentally parked four blocks away and had to walk in the rain, so I was wet and cold and hungry, but it was a memorable meal. The sandwich was wonderful—a hot, spiced, flavorful curry, encased in a thin layer of soft bread. The seasoning of the filling was spot-on. I could taste the complexity of the curry without being overwhelmed by too much spice. I could taste the coconut milk it had been simmered in, and I could tell by the bite they still had that the beans had been cooked from their dry state, not drained from a can. I also loved how the curry was studded with sweet, chewy dates, a perfect complement to the savory curry. I was inspired. As my friend and I chatted about life, and love, and food, I knew that I would be attempting to recreate this dish myself.
Of course, that is exactly what I did. It had been almost two months since I was at Aux Vivres, but the memory of the taste of that curry was still with me when I tried my hand at making it a couple of weeks ago. I used what I know about making curries and what I thought I remembered about this particular one to try to bring it back to life.

I admit, I used canned chickpeas rather than dried ones because the can was already perched happily in my pantry, begging to be made into curry. I also thought the dish would taste good in pita bread, and so, in my quest to make more bread, and because I was still on holiday and I had the time, I made the pita myself. Finally, I didn’t have any dates, but I had some golden raisins, so I used those instead.
The trickiest part was the seasoning: it isn’t easy to match the flavor of something as complex as a curry, but enough time had passed and my memory had faded enough so that I knew I wasn’t going to be too picky about matching what I had had in the restaurant exactly. I used what I had and just tried to make it taste good. I used curry powder, turmeric, cardamom, anise, cayenne, cumin, and poppy seeds. For a more authentic curry, the cardamom should have been in the form of pods, the anise, stars, and the cumin, seeds, but I only had the ground version of each, so they made decent substitutes. I cooked my seasoning concoction in hot oil, and then added a paste of ginger and garlic.
Next came diced onion, carrot, and potato. I added the drained chickpeas and the raisins, then deglazed the pan with a little water. Once that had reduced a bit, I added a can of coconut milk, and let it simmer and reduce until there was barely any liquid left in the pan. As it cooked, I tasted, seasoned, and adjusted.

I would say it was a success. Of course, if I could go back to Aux Vivres now and try the original, I’m sure I could find a hundred things that are different about mine, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Andrew and I agreed that it was a delicious meal, and so I’ve shared it below. We had it with green salad.
I have to thank my friend for introducing me to this restaurant, a tiny reason amongst many larger, more meaningful ones for why I am thankful that she is back in my life. She was at my wedding and it felt right—unlike this recipe, like it couldn’t have been any other way.

**Note: If the pictures seem worse to you than usual, it doesn’t mean you need to get glasses: I can’t use my usual camera, and I’m stuck with one that does not photograph food well at all. My other camera should be back soon, though!

Chickpea Curry
Serves 4
2 tbsp. curry powder (preferably madras curry powder)
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground cardamom (or, use 1-2 cardamom pods)
1 tsp. anise (or, use 1 star anise)
½ tsp. cayenne
1 ½ tsp. cumin (or, use 1 tsp. cumin seeds)
½ tsp. poppy seeds
1 tbsp. garlic, minced
1 tbsp. ginger root, peeled and minced
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 medium carrots, small dice
1 medium yellow potato, medium dice
2 15oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup golden raisins
½ cup water
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
Pita bread, tortillas, or chapati

In a small bowl, combine the spices (the first 7 ingredients). Place the ginger and garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt, and mash together with a pestle to create a coarse paste.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the spice mixture and cook and stir until the spices have darkened and are fragrant, 30 seconds to one minute. Lower heat to medium, add the ginger and garlic, and stir for one more minute. Stir in the onion and carrots, cooking until they have just begun to soften.

Stir in the potato, chickpeas, and raisins. Increase heat to high, and then add the water, scraping the bottom of the pan to pull up the brown bits stuck there. Add the coconut milk and bring the curry to a simmer. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer and reduce until there is only a small amount of liquid left in the pan. Stir frequently, and taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve in warm pita pockets, or wrapped in tortillas or chapati.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds really good and I love chick peas!