Robert Lever developed a taste for spicy foods in the world's most unlikely place: London, the well-known capital of culinary blah.
He was living and working as a landscape designer in Geneva for three years and vacationed whenever possible in England, where the restaurant offerings, he says, are more than bland; "they're just plain crummy."
Then he discovered the foods of India, which have proliferated in London in recent years. More specifically, he discovered curry and he was hooked.
"It was the aroma that got me first," he says. "I walked around the city a lot, and you just can't do that without passing Indian restaurants and neighborhoods. So I followed my nose and was more than pleasantly surprised to find the smell was only surpassed by the taste."
But when he returned to Geneva and later to California, Lever found that he was pretty much on his own if he wanted to pursue the delights of curry. No stranger to the kitchen anyway, he "just started improvising."
It was that dabbling that resulted in the curried chicken recipe he shared with Guys & Galleys. "It's deceptively simple," he says, "because I take a few shortcuts, but your guests will never believe it; they will be convinced you spent the day in the kitchen."
He does have one warning: "If you're new to curry, experiment a little--go easy on it, maybe half of what I use."
Lever, 38, was a relative newcomer to cooking. "As a kid, I had no interest in it at all," he says, "but during my bachelor years, it became a necessity--a matter of survival, I guess you could say."
He also had a long fling with vegetarianism, which, he says, mandates taking a personal hand in food preparation. He apparently became more than adequate because, although he never had any formal training, he spent several years cooking in and managing some fairly well-known restaurants.
That is where he met his "main competition in the kitchen," his wife, Robina. "I was managing Puffin's restaurant in Corona del Mar, and she came in and applied for a job."
She did have formal training and is an expert pastry chef, he says, a skill she has reserved for family and friends since the birth of their first child, Monique, three years ago. Then, 19 months ago, Alys was born, and Lever says it will be a long time before the public will again enjoy the culinary talents of his wife.
The Levers live in Costa Mesa, where he owns and operates Robert's Landscape & Gardening.
ROBERT LEVER'S CURRIED CHICKEN
8 split breasts of chicken
1/2 stick butter
2 cans cream of chicken soup
3 teaspoons curry powder
Salt, pepper and paprika to taste
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms
1 cup sour cream
3 ounces toasted shaved almonds
Melt butter in frying pan over medium heat. Coat chicken with salt, pepper and paprika and brown on each side (about 15 minutes). While chicken is browning, empty soup cans into bowl and mix in the curry powder. Place chicken in baking pan and pour over the soup-curry mixture, leveling with bottom of wooden spoon. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/4 hours.
While chicken is baking, slice, wash, then saute mushrooms in butter-chicken drippings in frying pan. Stir cooked mushrooms into sour cream.
Remove baking dish from oven and remove chicken. Stir sour cream-mushroom mixture into sauce and replace chicken. Spread almonds over mixture and bake for 15 more minutes at 350 degrees.
Serve with rice mixed with raisins and diced apples.