Naan Bread

For an amateur cook, there are some almost impossible holy grails to chase when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

When I finally came up with the recipe and method for making a great naan I almost did backflips in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not, but I was very pleased indeed; I must have tried 20 different recipes before coming up with the final refinements.

This is probably as close to perfection as I’m likely to come in my kitchen, short of digging a great big pit in my garden and sinking a tandoor into it. Those who have tasted it say that it is every bit as good as the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

This recipe makes 6 naan, around 9 inches in diameter. It is hard to cut this recipe down for smaller quantities while still retaining its balance, but once it has risen you can divide the dough and freeze what you don’t want to use. It comes back to life very well and will last up to a month with no ill effects in a freezer.

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RECIPE – makes 6

3/4 tsp dried yeast

3 tsp caster sugar

130 ml tepid water

300g ’00’ flour

1 tsp salt

4 tbsp melted butter (or ghee)

4 tbsp natural yoghurt

To serve:

nigella seeds

chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Mix the yeast and half the sugar in 4 tbsp of the water and set aside for 10 minutes.

Stir all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the liquids, including the yeast and sugar mixture you made earlier. Using a fork, bring the ingredients together into a sticky dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 7 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, using a teaspoon of vegetable oil; work the dough into a ball and place into the bowl. Cover with a damp tea towel or cling film, set aside for at least two hours.

Heat your oven to its hottest setting and put a large baking tray in the oven to heat up. Allow enough time for your oven to get as hot as it possibly can. At full blast on the hottest fan setting my oven will reach around 270C.

After two hours the dough will have risen to a silky, pillowy texture. Turn out from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface; using your fingers push all the air out from the dough, divide into six and roll each segment into a rough circle (or the more traditional teardrop shape of a naan). If using nigella seeds as a topping, scatter them lightly over the top and gently push them in. Brush the top of each naan with a little melted butter or ghee.

When ready to cook, take the hot baking tray out of the oven and close the oven door. Quickly but carefully lay one naan on the hot baking tray, then put it back into the hottest part of your oven.

Tip: So often I see people heat their oven then leave the door open while they do something else, they end up with a cooler oven and a hotter kitchen.

Especially when using the fan setting, the hottest part is not necessarily the top of the oven – using an oven thermometer you can quickly discover the temperature differences between the various areas of your oven. It’s good to know, especially when baking cakes, because there can be a 20 degree Celsius difference between the hottest and coolest areas of your oven, front to back as well as top to bottom.

Cook the naan for around 3 minutes until the remaining air pockets have bubbled up, it is golden brown and starting to go dark brown in places – as you can see in the picture above.

Brush with a little more melted butter or ghee, and scatter with chopped coriander leaves if you are using them. You can make a garlic naan by infusing your melted butter with a crushed garlic clove.

Cod Loin with a Fragrant Curry Sauce

This is a very simple curry that packs a huge punch of flavour. The spicing is bold but it isn’t the kind of curry that will have you bolting for a glass of milk to cool your mouth, instead the spices emerge as layers of flavour that queue politely for your attention.

As this is the first proper curry dish that I have posted here I wanted to use an amazing general-purpose sauce, to show how simple it can be to get great flavour and also how versatile a good sauce can be. I have used cod loin here but you can use any firm white fish loin or fillet, salmon, prawns, lobster, chicken and even pork. Quorn pieces go very well with this and if you want to make it for a vegan just omit the fish sauce, substitute the ghee for vegetable oil and use firm textured vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, cauliflower) as your key ingredients.

I have specified using curry powder in this recipe – please note that it is my own recipe for curry powder and the recipe below is linked to the recipe for the curry powder. Please, please, please do not use a commercial curry powder in its place, it will be – how can I put this plainly? – crap.

This goes very well with chapatis and coriander rice.

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RECIPE – feeds 2 – 4 people 

One cod loin per person

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp black mustard seeds

4 bay leaves

4 banana shallots, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a big knob of fresh ginger, about 25g, not peeled but rough bits cut off, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely sliced

1 birds-eye chilli, finely sliced (optional, for if you like heat)

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp turmeric

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tin coconut milk

small bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stalks separated, stalks chopped finely


METHOD

Prepare all ingredients, combine the curry powder and turmeric with a little water to make a paste, set aside.

Tip: Adding a little water to dry ground spice powders to make a paste ensures that they don’t burn when added to a hot pan. It also allows the flavours to begin to develop even before you cook with them.

If you are ever adding powdered spices to a very hot oil (e.g. when cooking stir-fry in a wok) then make the paste using vegetable oil rather than water.

In a large pan, melt the ghee over a medium heat then add the mustard seeds and bay leaves, cook for approximately a minute then add the shallots, garlic, ginger and chilli. Cook for a few minutes until soft and aromatic then add the curry powder and turmeric paste. Cook for a minute or so, stirring the paste around to distribute it around and coat the other ingredients, then add the tomatoes, fish sauce and coconut milk. Bring to the boil then simmer for five minutes.

Turn off the heat, make sure your fresh coriander stalks are finely chopped and add them to the sauce; stir them in thoroughly and now let the sauce sit for as long as you possibly can. This sauce gets better with time, so try and make it in the morning or early afternoon for the evening meal. If you can make it the evening before it will be even better.

When ready to eat, gradually heat the sauce up and when it reaches a boil add the cod loins (or other fish) and simmer for 5-8 minutes until it is just cooked – it will continue to cook in the sauce, even off the heat. Scatter chopped fresh coriander leaves over the top and serve.

If using chicken or pork it should be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. By the time it comes to reheat it the meat will have slowly cooked through.

If using vegetables they should also be cut into fairly small chunks and added with the tomatoes and coconut milk. Check the vegetables for firmness before reheating to serve and cook on for as long as necessary to cook to your liking.

If using Quorn, that should also be added with the tomatoes and coconut milk.

 

Coriander Rice

Rice is often viewed as a bland accompaniment to strongly flavoured dishes, but treating it that way does it a huge disservice. Like pasta and potato, rice is an excellent carrier of flavour and a little ingenuity with your rice goes a very long way in turning a good curry into an exceptional meal.

I have a large repertoire of rice side dishes, this is one of the simplest but it still packs a punchy, aromatic flavour.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people 

Basmati rice, cooked and cooled

2 tbsp groundnut oil

1 tsp coriander seeds

2 kaffir lime leaves (dried or fresh), finely shredded

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

First, weigh out your rice. You will probably know how much rice your family and friends will eat, it varies greatly among people so I have avoided giving a defined quantity. As a rough guide, if you need it, a small mug filled with dry rice will easily feed two people with leftovers at my table, as an accompaniment to other dishes.

Cook your rice, tip into a sieve to drain and leave to cool completely.

Tip: Back in the days when I could only manage to cook a small handful of simple dishes, the one and only thing that I could cook well was rice. In my hands it always had perfect bite coupled with softness, each grain was distinct and separate from its neighbour and there was no hint of stodginess. Then it all went wrong.

I learned that the way I cooked rice was incorrect. I convinced myself that I should be using exact volumes of rice and water, cooking for exact times, sealing pan lids, leaving it to sit for ages, using tea towels as steam absorbers – the more instructions I followed, the more I got away from the simple pleasures of cooking rice simply, the worse my rice got.

My wife was in despair; “you have lost your rice mojo” she told me. Eventually I did the sensible thing and went back to cooking my rice the wrong way, and now it’s perfect again.

In my world, you put your rice in the largest pan you have and cover it in a lot of cold water, at least an inch of water over the level of the rice. Season the water with a very little salt and over a high heat bring the water up toward boiling point. Before it actually boils, turn the heat right down so that the water settles into a very gentle simmer. This will prevent the rice grains from bursting.

The time it takes your rice to cook can differ greatly, so check your rice after 3 or 4 minutes at the simmer and check it every minute thereafter. Your grains should be soft but with a definite firmness to the grain. Overall, your pan of rice should emerge as clean, distinct grains that will be a pleasure to eat.

When almost ready to eat, make your coriander rice at the last minute.

Heat the oil in a saucepan large enough to comfortably hold your rice. When hot but not smoking add the coriander seeds, agitate the pan constantly and when the coriander seeds begin to pop add the shredded kaffir lime leaves. Cook for a minute or two, ensuring that you don’t scorch the seeds or leaves, then add the rice. The pan will be hot so the rice will quickly heat through, stir thoroughly so the kaffir lime leaves and coriander seeds are well distributed, then add the chopped fresh coriander leaves and stir through again until well combined.

Serve alongside any dish where you would normally use plain rice.

Chapatis

A quick and easy way to make a slight dish much more filling, chapatis – an unleavened Asian flatbread – can be on the table 15 minutes or so after weighing out the flour. Traditionally eaten alongside curry, where it is often used as a scoop in place of a fork or spoon, chapatis are also excellent with middle eastern dishes and make delicious vegan wraps.

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RECIPE – makes 4, will feed 2 people as a side dish

125g wholemeal bread flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

85ml water


METHOD

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, make a well in the centre and add the water. Using your fingers in a claw-like grip, pull the flour into the water, pulling and kneading with your fingers to get everything off the sides and bottom of the bowl. The dough should start off sticky but quickly become stiff and silky. At this point take it from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead it for 7-10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, or large dry frying pan, until very hot. While it heats up, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll them out into a rough round shape, adding small amounts of flour to prevent sticking as you roll. The chapatis need to be thin, thinner than a penny piece. If you have trouble rolling them out thinly, cut two squares of baking parchment, dust them with flour and roll the dough out between them.

To cook, lay the rolled chapati in the hot skillet and cook on each side for a minute or so. They should scorch and even burn a little; that’s fine, that’s where a lot of the flavour comes from.

Repeat until all four chapatis are cooked, the ones made previously can be kept warm in a low oven under a tea towel.

This recipe is easily scaled up to feed four or more people, just scale all the ingredient quantities up in equal ratios.

Bombay Potatoes

For an amateur cook, there are some seemingly unattainable holy grails when it comes to making curries:

  • getting a curry to taste just like it does in the restaurant
  • making the perfect naan
  • making the perfect Bombay aloo

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the perfect Bombay potatoes recipe, but it’s the best refinement yet of a great many that I have tried, and it’s as close to perfection as I’m likely to come. Those who have tasted it prefer it to the one that we have in our local Indian restaurant, and theirs is very good indeed.

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RECIPE – feeds 4-6 people depending on what you have with it

3 large potatoes, peeled and halved

a knob of ginger as big as both of your thumbs, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 large tomatoes, one quartered the other cut into thin wedges

3 tbsp ghee

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp brown mustard seeds

1 large onion, roughly chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric

2 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp nigella seeds

a small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped


METHOD

In a large pan of slightly salted water, boil the potatoes until they are just tender. Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle cut them into 2cm cubes. Set aside.

In a mortar and pestle, grind the ginger, garlic and quartered tomato into a smooth paste; set aside.

*Tip: It seems that every time I read a recipe that calls for finely chopped ginger it tells you to peel the ginger first. That is a huge waste of flavour. All I do is cut off any rough and dry bits on the outside and make sure that it is clean, then chop it finely skin ‘n’all.

In a small bowl, add a little water to the ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala and hot chilli powder, stir to a paste and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan over a moderately high heat, when melted add the cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds. When the cumin seeds start to darken (a minute or so) add the onion, stir thoroughly and cook for a minute longer then add the ground ginger, garlic and tomato mixture, the ground spice paste and a pinch of salt. Gently saute for a minute or two, check the seasoning and correct if necessary.

Add the tomato wedges, and cook for three minutes then add the cubed potatoes and nigella seeds. Cook for a further 3-5 minutes until done to your liking, sprinkle with the coriander leaves and serve.

To make it vegan, simply use vegetable oil in place of the ghee.

 

Curry Powder

The best curry-making advice I ever received was this: never, ever, EVER use a jar of curry powder that you have bought from a shop. I remember reading, years ago, that commercial curry powder is mainly comprised of the scrapings and dust from the factory floor; while I doubt that is actually true, some of the curry powders I have tasted over the years are so disgusting that it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Many curry recipes don’t call for curry powder at all, instead they require freshly roasted and ground whole spices. I have an extensive spice cupboard filled with all kinds of whole and ground spices that I use so frequently that there is never a danger of anything going beyond its best. That is the  first true secret to a great curry: use the freshest spices you possibly can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using ground spices from a packet, just make sure they are from a reputable, high-quality manufacturer – I don’t do endorsements but you will quickly learn which ones are the best – and make sure they are as fresh as possible. If that means digging into the back of a shelf in the store to get the newest stock then don’t be embarrassed.

There are times however when a good curry powder is exactly what is needed, and this mix – compliments of Madhur Jaffrey – is as good as it gets. It has layers of complex flavour and aromas, it bursts with life and does a little dance with your taste buds. If that all sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, make it and see for yourself…


RECIPE – makes a small jar

2 tbsp coriander seeds

1 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tsp black peppercorns

1 1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 tsp fenugreek seeds

1 1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 tsp hot chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric


METHOD

In a large pan – NOT non-stick – place the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, brown mustard seeds and whole cloves. Put over a high heat and stay with the pan, shaking every few seconds. Within a minute or so the spices should start to become aromatic, this is the dangerous time…

If you burn your spices you have no option but to start again, so watch them carefully. Just as the cumin seeds start to darken and you can really smell everything – this takes just a couple of minutes at the most – add the fenugreek seeds. Shake the pan for ten seconds then take off the heat and immediately empty the spices onto a plate (preferably a metal one) to cool. The pan will be very hot so if you had left the spices in it they would burn.

Using a small electric coffee grinder – I have a small, cheap one which I use exclusively for grinding spices – or a mortar and pestle, add the chilli flakes, chilli powder and turmeric to the toasted spices, and grind to a fine, well mixed powder.

Store in a jar in a cool, dark place and this mix will easily last 3 months or more without losing much of its vitality. It is quite exceptional when used straight from the grinder.

 

Ghee

If you like cooking Indian curries, middle eastern cuisine or southern Asian food in general then it is essential that you have a supply of ghee in your fridge if you are going to get the very best results.

Ghee is used in place of vegetable and other oils because of its high smoke point (the temperature at which its molecules begin to deteriorate) of around 250C, higher than most vegetable oils, and also because of the unique taste and scent that it adds to a dish.

Ghee is a kind of clarified butter that has had the milk solids removed and is slightly caramelised, as such it is incredibly easy to make. You can of course buy it, many major supermarkets now stock it and if all else fails you will definitely find it in specialist Asian shops. Why go to the bother of searching for what may well be a more expensive yet inferior product though? The chances are that what you buy will not be made from the best quality butter and will have all kinds of preservatives and other chemicals added to it to extend the shelf life. You can make home-made ghee with the butter that you like, and with nothing added it will last for months in the fridge.

Ghee


RECIPE – makes enough to fill a small Kilner jar

1 kg unsalted or slightly salted butter

 


METHOD

Place the whole blocks of butter in a large pan over a very low heat and allow to melt slowly and completely. Once melted, the butter will begin to separate into three distinct layers: foam will appear on top, the milk solids will begin to drop to the bottom, and the clarified butter will float in the middle.

Turn the heat up very slightly and leave, undisturbed, for up to an hour. The butter will take a little time to fully clarify, and the longer you leave it the more the ghee will caramelise, giving you a distinct and delicious flavour.

Three important points to note while cooking it:

  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE SMOKE
  • DO NOT LET THE GHEE BURN
  • DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, STIR YOUR GHEE

Turn the heat off when the ghee is coloured to your liking, which could be anything between the yellow in the picture above to a deep, dark toffee brown. It is all a matter of taste so feel free to experiment to see how you like it best.

Without disturbing the pan, skim off the floating sediment. Allow the ghee to cool a little, for ten minutes or so, then strain the ghee through a muslin cloth into a sealable jar. The muslin will catch the solids at the bottom, which will likely be very dark brown by this stage.

Refrigerate your ghee and use every time your recipe calls for vegetable oil. It will go solid in the fridge, but if you take it out half an hour or so before you need to use it then it will soften sufficiently for you to get a spoon into it.