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Currying Flavor

December 12, 1996|FAYE LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Curry powder is often denigrated by Indian cooks. They point out that it was popularized by the British to bring the flavors of India to England but that it is not part of traditional Indian cuisine. On an Indian restaurant menu, I recently read that in good Indian cooking, "there is never a hint of that brassy-flavored yellow stuff sold in cans as curry powder."

Yet the value of curry powder, the best-selling spice blend internationally, should not be overlooked. I discovered its versatility by chance when I was trying to cook like my mother-in-law. For seasoning vegetables, meats and soups, she uses a Yemenite spice mixture of cumin, turmeric and black pepper. When I was in a hurry to roast a chicken, instead of mixing those spices, I rubbed the chicken with curry powder.

The flavor turned out to be quite similar, as cumin and turmeric are main ingredients in curry powder, but it had an intriguing difference because of the other curry spices. It was a success.

Later I learned that curry powder contributes a lovely color and aroma to chicken soup. I also discovered that it's terrific in chili; simply use curry powder instead of chili powder for a new twist.

When I studied cooking in France, the chefs at our cooking school used curry powder discreetly. A chef might add a pinch to subtly lift the taste of a creamy dish or to enhance seafood. In our classes we used the spice blend to season vinaigrette for shrimp or lobster salads. We learned to prepare dishes like scallops Nantaise, in which sauteed scallops are heated in a curry-accented tomato sauce.

Curry powder is a great partner for sauteed onions. Add it during the last minute of browning and keep the onions over low heat so the spices become lightly toasted but do not burn. Toss this delectable mixture with cooked rice, noodles, lentils, potatoes or cauliflower to give them a quick boost of flavor.

Not all curry powders are alike. In addition to cumin and turmeric, the blend usually contains coriander, ginger, fenugreek and pepper (cayenne, black or both). Several companies produce hot and mild versions; the hot ones contain more cayenne pepper. It's a good idea to try several brands, because the spices in the mix vary greatly.

Curry powder is easy to find at the supermarket, but you can find a greater variety in Asian markets. Currently I'm enjoying a Japanese blend labeled "Oriental Curry Powder" with star anise, cloves, cardamom, fennel and allspice added to the basic spices.

Using curry powder saves time because you don't need to hunt for several spice bottles. Because this spice blend can give a rich taste to many dishes, you can cook them with less fat and they will still be flavorful. Some cooks recommend curry powder as a salt substitute.

Keep curry powder in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. It can be stored for up to one year. If the spice smells musty or its aroma becomes faint, it should be replaced.

Levy's latest book is "30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes" (Warner Books, 1995).

SCALLOPS NANTAISE

1 1/2 pounds large sea scallops, rinsed and patted dry

3 tablespoons oil or butter

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Dash cayenne pepper

3/4 teaspoon curry powder

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Cognac

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

Nantes in the western French province of Brittany was a center for the spice trade in the 18th century. Some of the spices found their way into the local cuisine. For example, in this dish, curry powder lends a subtle accent and warm color to the scallops and their tomato-wine sauce. This is a simplified, lighter version of the classic. It's great with rice or boiled potatoes.

Remove white muscle from side of each scallop. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large saute pan or skillet. Add scallops and saute over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, cayenne and about 1/2 teaspoon curry powder and saute 1 minute longer. Remove to plate.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in pan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add Cognac, then wine and bring to boil. Add tomatoes and simmer, uncovered, over medium heat about 5 minutes or until sauce is thick. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon curry powder and salt and pepper to taste. Add scallops to sauce and cook, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes or until scallops are just tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

290 calories; 619 mg sodium; 45 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 25 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

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