Spicing It Up

I don’t have a lot of pots and pans.If I had to, I could put dinner on the table with just one pot and a paring knife.And I’d have no problem eating with mismatched utensils if necessary.But take away my spices and it’s a whole other story.

I grew up in a household with a spice rack, but my mother’s culinary palette was much too broad and diverse to be contained, even in the deluxe, three-shelf version.This was in the 60s, way before the foodie revolution when pretty much the only way to get an authentic herbes de Provence blend was to make it yourself.Do you now how hard it is to find summer savory and chervil and lavender even now?

Nowadays, there are all sorts of subtle and different “curry” spice mixtures readily available.You can buy Bengal and Madras versions in any grocery, pick up green Thai curry powder or red curry paste from World Market or order complex and subtle blends from companies like chef Ranjan Dey’s New World Spices (http://www.newworldspices.com/ ).Back then, though, outside of the Indian subcontinent, “curry” pretty much meant the tin of chrome-yellow powder composed mostly of cumin and turmeric.This might have daunted another cook but my mother was made of sterner stuff.She’d grown up in the south and cooked like Paula Dean.And if she’d stayed in Virginia, maybe that would have been enough.Biscuits are, after all, the staff of life.

But she’d married an Army officer, moved to Germany and then France, traveling to Italy and Switzerland and taking the odd cooking course as she went.Sauerbraten found its way onto the menu, with crisp little potato pancakes on the side.There was a flirtation with escargot when she bought the reusable shells and single-purpose copper pan to cook them in.(The only person in the house who truly enjoyed these rubbery, garlic-infused morsels was my little sister, who was four at the time.Everyone else was meh.)

She invented a dish called “shrimp curry” and God only knows what was in it because it hit the family dinner table with a distinct “thud” never to return. I remember the sauce was disconcertingly pink and creamy but know for a fact that no coconut milk was used as a thickener, the way it is in most recipes today.I suspect mayonnaise might have been in there somewhere.My mother was very fond of using mayonnaise as an ingredient.

Her next attempt to coax the family toward more adventurous eating was “keema,” a traditional Indian dish involving ground meat and peas.My mother used ground beef (she was tired of making hamburgers) and peas.The peas were canned.The dish was greeted with even less enthusiasm than the shrimp curry had been.

My sister, who refused to eat onions, spent half an hour extricating miniscule slivers of the toxic vegetable from the keema before she even tasted it.Keema is not a dish that’s best served cold.My brother thought it looked like barf and expressed this opinion several times.Loudly.At which point, my neutrality toward the meal (it was better than stuffed peppers) became a lot more negative because, sadly, he was correct.I think the unpleasant texture might have had something to do with the canned tomatoes she’d used.To this day. I rarely cook with canned tomatoes because I hate dealing with the chunks of tomato end that never quite integrate into whatever you’re making.)

Our father, who had served in India during WWII, refused to eat it.He liked beef.And he could tolerate peas (although green beans were better) but he didn’t want them mixed up.And he really didn’t want any curry powder slipped into the mix.We ate a lot of meat loaf after that.

Despite my mother’s best efforts, curry did not seem destined to become a part of my life.And then I went to college and in my sophomore year opted out of the “food plan” that allowed me to eat in the cafeteria.I lost ten pounds because I wasn’t eating sweet rolls for breakfast every day.(The cafeteria made awesome sweet rolls.)I ate a lot of yogurt.And I discovered that you can make rice and beans taste like completely different dishes depending on the spices you use.Which is good because rice and beans are cheap.I started using spices I’d never heard of.And I discovered the secret of life.Spicy is better than bland.

Once I learned that, my destiny was set.I’ve gone way beyond the spice rack to the spice cabinet.I regularly use five kinds of pepper—white, red cayenne, dried red chili flakes, black pepper and coarse cracked black pepper.There’s probably a bottle of green peppercorns somewhere in the cupboard as well, most likely tucked behind the canister of wasabi powder or the container of dried dill weed I bought when I was making a salmon mousse and never used again.

I have seven different kinds of curry powder, all with different topnotes—saffron and tamarind and fenugreek and fennel.I make curry so often one of my wooden spoons is permanently stained yellow.And I’ve even made keema a few times.

Somewhere, my mother is laughing.

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