Cooking Off the Cuff: Currying flavor


Lamb and chickpea curry: (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)

So, some sort of curry-type stew was on the agenda; the question was whether the chickpeas would stand alone or be part of a more elaborate dish. The answer came, as it often does, on a walk through the farmers market, where my favorite lamb supplier had a package of riblets that had been separated and cut into 1-1/2-inch lengths — just the thing for rich flavor and gelatinous texture.

Back home, the chickpeas were already cooked and the 1-1/2 pounds of meat already cut up, so I started by making a spice mix (all whole spices) — a teaspoon each of cumin and coriander, half that much of fennel seed and yellow mustard seed, half that amount of cardamom seeds, a little piece of cinnamon bark and (using a practice picked up from Jean-Georges Vongerichten) a few blanched almonds. All these I toasted in a dry skillet until they smelled good, then ground them in a coffee/spice grinder along with some black peppercorns. I rubbed this and some salt into the meat and left it alone for 30 minutes or so at room temperature.

In coconut oil (ghee or vegetable oil would have been fine), I slowly browned the lamb — “slowly” meaning that it took 25 minutes to turn golden (not dark brown). I added chopped onion, ginger, garlic and a fresh, not-very-hot serrano chili and continued to cook for five minutes, then tossed in 2/3 cup tomatoes (from a can, crushed by squeezing with my hand), a whole dried chipotle chili, a good handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) stems and water to cover. I checked for salt, covered the pan and simmered the stew until the meat was soft but still needed another 20 minutes or so to get fall-off-the-bone tender. At this point, I added chickpeas — perhaps 2/3 the volume of the lamb, but this will depend entirely on how many people you are serving and how much they are likely to eat. Using more, even far more, chickpeas than meat would be a fine way to go.

At serving time, I reheated the stew and stirred in a double handful of rough-chopped coriander leaves. If I had a tandoor, I would have made a few pieces of nan bread, but (oddly) I didn’t, so instead I cooked some basmati rice while the stew was in progress.

Beyond the flexible ratio of meat to legume, you could also omit the tomatoes (though the dish wouldn’t look as nice) and/or finish it with yogurt or cream. Bone-in lamb from the neck or shoulder would be a reasonable — but not ideal — substitute for riblets. Apart from their cooking qualities, riblets are great fun to eat: The bones lend themselves to slurping and making a happy mess, but they slip out so easily that the fastidious are easily able to scrape them clean with knife and fork.

Obviously, there were leftovers, as there are with any stew no matter how hard one tries to avoid them. The next day, I just added more chickpeas and additional fresh coriander, and the dish was as good as new.

There were still a few chickpeas left in the fridge. I dried them on a paper towel and fried them in a skillet with plenty of neutral oil until crisp and golden brown. When drained and salted, they made a great snack, and a nice simple ending to the first flush of our little craze.

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