Nearly Wild Curry Mix

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Curry powder always seemed to me a shabby thing to buy, it being so much more interesting to work with the whole spices themselves. I was spurred on by one of the first cookbooks I ever bought, a collection of recipes and information about spices published to sell the goods of a local spice importer. By understanding the spices individually, I was able to experiment with them culinarily, adding more or less to a mix depending on what I intended to do with them. Cardamom and cloves, for instance, could be added if I was using a mix to spice tea or desserts with. I would add more dried curry leaves and turmeric when making a mix for fish.

When I began to seriously incorporate more of the native and invasive wild spices of the world of wild food, it wasn’t a great stretch of the imagination to start to envision a masala or curry mix made entirely of foraged aromatics. And while an excellent entirely wild curry mix can be made, I usually find that I miss the cumin acutely. For day to day use and especially when replacing imported curry powder in traditional recipes, I have settled on a curry mix that is “nearly wild,” relying only mainly on foraged ingredients. It is also quite flexible, and may be adapted, altered or expanded by anyone who uses it, with many replacements or omissions possible. I believe it can be used in most temperate climates without too much trouble, assuming the availability of traditional imported spices to replace what cannot be foraged.

I have omitted any turmeric or substitute for turmeric in this recipe. To many, the taste and color of curries cannot be separated from that spice. Now that organic fresh turmeric is much more widely available, I use it in these curries, when it can be added at the time of cooking. You may wish to add that or the powdered form to affect a more traditional coloration. I sometimes add annatto seed instead for “local color,” but of course the color is a different one. Below is the recipe, see notes after the recipe for information on substitutions. I have deliberately split the list of ingredients into three groups.

 

Combine :

 

1 ) essential bases

1 tbs. black mustard seed (wild or domestic)

1 tbs. cumin seed

1 tbs. wild parsnip or pushki or coriander seed

1-2 tsp wild carrot seed (optional, omit if using coriander seed)

 

2) optional aromatics

2-3 northern bayberry leaves or 1-2 bay leaves or 8 curry (kari) leaves

1-2 tsp ripened (red) spicebush berries, dried or 1/2-1 tsp allspice

1-2 magnolia buds, dried or pinches of magnolia leaf or 1 clove

1 tsp american juniper berries or 1/4 tsp european juniper

1-3 eastern hemlock cones

 

3) “hot” or piquant aromatics

1-2 tsp prickly ash berry or sichuan peppercorn

1-3 tsp waterpepper seeds (or 1/2-1 tsp black peppercorns)

1-2 tsp chile flakes or 1-3 small dried hot chiles

 

Combine all the above in a heavy pan and heat over low to medium heat, tossing every thirty seconds or so, until the spices are toasted and fragrant. You can also store the mix, combined and use as whole spices in pickles or broths, or toast and grind it to order, which will give the best flavor. My only advice would be to use the whole recipe when grinding or using to infuse, as the many different-sized and shaped ingredients tend to separate themselves in the jar.

The trinity of mustard-cumin-wild parsnip is essential to this mix, nearly everything else can be omitted or varied. If using domesticated mustard seed, the variety to use is the brown or black mustard seeds preferred in Indian cuisine. Wild mustard genera which produce seeds that can be used for this include Brassica, Lepidium, Barbarea, Thlaspi, etc. Wild parsnip or pushki (Heracleum maximum, other edible Heracleum species can be substituted) seed, along with wild carrot seed all bear some resemblance to family member coriander. Pushki and wild parsnip have a drier, earthier flavor to them while wild carrot is spicier and lightly citrus-y. Always remember to avoid wild carrot seed if pregnant or desiring to become so–while I doubt that the small amount involved would have much effect unless consumed in massive quantities, wild carrot seed is traditionally considered an abortifacient.

The second group of aromatics are all wild but any can be omitted or substituted with the imported spices listed, with the exception of hemlock cones, which really have no parallel. If there is one wild spice in this group that I would strongly recommend investigating (and not replacing with allspice, which is a paltry substitute), it is spicebush. Native to the eastern US, it is a native understory tree which produces a green berry in summer that matures to a deep red in autumn. It is resinous and pungent and can be used ripe or unripe, fresh or dried. It has become inseparable from various curry mixes and is the most distinctive background player in this recipe, in my opinion.

Heat can be regulated by adjusting the last group of ingredients, which is in part why I have left a range for those items. I would describe this mix as moderately spicy, but not extremely so, even if using the larger numbers and including all three hot items. For a heavier spice, simply add more of whichever piquant aromatic you prefer.

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Elderberry Syrup

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In a medium saucepan, combine :

1/2 lb. elderberries (washed, still attached to stalks)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

Bring to a boil, crushing berries and sugar together. When the berries are smashed and the liquid begins to boil, cut heat, removing from burner if necessary.

Add :

2 1/2 cups sugar

4 cups water

Bring to a boil, then cut to a simmer.

Simmer for a half hour, then remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for eight hours or overnight.

Crush again and strain all liquids through a cheesecloth into a syrup bottle.

Keep refrigerated.

Use as a base for sodas, dessert sauces, granitas, etc. Excellent combined in preparations with strong spices and herbs such as spicebush, black cardamom, ginger, wild ginger, shiso, monarda, cinnamon, star anise. Extremely refreshing on its own, with an almost perfect balance of sweet and tart.

Spiced Daikon Pickle

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Another year-round staple of my kitchen, this is pickled radish inspired by the Vietnamese do chua pickles, served with noodle dishes, salads and banh mi. I specifically made this to pair with my sweet-hot pickled carrots. I was introduced to the combination of pickled carrot and radish threads (sometimes with cucumbers added) in the Vietnamese restaurants and sandwich shops of Houston, and have made some variation on do chua ever since. My love of variety gave me the idea a few years ago to separate the pickles into two different treatments, adding chile and more sugar to the carrots and a mix of savory spices to the radish.

Place in a glass quart jar* :

2 star anise

2 tsp sichuan peppercorns, whole

2 tsp black peppercorns, whole

1 stick of cinnamon or a few pieces of cassia

*You may choose to place these spices in an infusion bag, so that the flavors get into the pickle without having whole spices scattered amongst the pickle. You may also simply leave them in, and enjoy the intense flavor of crunching into whole spices. I like both, and will vary according to my mood or what I plan to serve this with.

Slice into shreds / julienne with a mandoline or knife :

1 lb. daikon radish or other large asian radish

Heat in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved :

2 cups white vinegar, brewing vinegar or other mild vinegar

3 slices of ginger, about 1-2″ inches long and wide

2 tbs sugar

1 tsp salt

Place the shredded radish into the quart jar with the spices, then pour in the seasoned vinegar while it is still hot.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

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This is another fairly straightforward quick pickle, once which will be ready to eat once it cools, slightly more flavorful after 24 hours, and which will develop in flavor over time and last at least a month or two.

It does, however, come with a warning. Pickled radish has a very strong odor. When I serve this pickle for a buffet of noodles or banh mi, or any other occasion, I always make sure to open the jar a couple of hours before the guests arrive. Another option is to place a serving of the pickle in a small bowl and return it to the fridge, uncovered, which will keep the pickle cool and let it air out. Once you make this pickle, you will quickly understand how important a step this can be. It doesn’t bother me much, but for some the smell will permeate the pickle board and inhibit their appetites. None of the odor really permeates the flavor of the dish, which is spicy and mildly sweet.

Excellent served with sandwiches, salads, noodle bowls and so on, either as a component of the dish or an optional garnish. Because of the complex, savory spices used this pickle doesn’t necessarily register as specifically “asian” in flavor and can be used to accompany a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. An especially enjoyable use of them that might not be readily obvious is to pair them with hard cheeses such as gruyere, cheddar or gouda. They also make an excellent foil for sweet or spicy cold meats and sausages.

Fried Shallots & Shallot Oil

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I am a tremendous fan of any kitchen process that yields more than one useful pantry item, not to mention any recipe in which there is no waste. Fried shallots and shallot oil are a perfect example, creating two delicious products that can be used independently or together.

A common preparation in Vietnamese cuisine, this is simple and delicious enough to be used with any kind of cooking. Fried shallots are an even more delicious variant on fried onions, and homemade ones knock the socks off of those horrible dehydrated bits in the supermarket that often appear in 50’s style casserole recipes, usually alongside canned cream of mushroom soup. Shallots in general do not get enough love–this deeply-flavored allium can be used as a substitute for onions in sauces and many other dishes where a touch of sophistication is needed. They have a raw flavor that may be a bit intense for some, but become much more mellow and deep in taste when cooked.

Fried shallots can be used as a garnish or addition to all kinds of dishes cold or hot. They are used most extensively in Vietnamese cooking as additions to noodle bowls and soups, but will add a great flavor and texture to sandwiches, omelettes, spring and summer rolls, raw salads, cold composed salads (such as egg or potato salad), and so on. Heck, you can even use them to top that casserole–best to leave the cream of mushroom soup at the supermarket, though. One of my absolute favorite things to do with them is to lay them out with or without breadcrumbs on top of a pan of macaroni and cheese. Best of all is to serve the shallots and shallot oil as accompaniments to a large or festive meal, and allow your guests to experiment.

Shallot oil has as many uses as fried shallots, perhaps even more since it can be used as a cooking oil as well as a dressing or garnish. I enjoy the oil most as a part of a vinaigrette or dressing, as a last-minute flavor booster for soups or cooked vegetable dishes. It works wonders drizzled onto grilled vegetables, fish and meat. It can be substituted for olive oil or butter in cooked or cold dishes such as pasta salads, egg dishes, bean and grain salads, and so on. One of my favorite things to do is to add it to mashed potatoes instead of butter, and then garnish those potatoes with some of the fried shallots as well.

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To make fried shallots and shallot oil, peel and slice 8 oz (1/2 lb) of shallots into slices about 1/8th of an inch thick. You can go a bit thicker, but be careful not to slice them too much thinner or they will burn up in the oil. Measure out a cup and a half of oil and pour into a wok, deep skillet or wide saucepan. I use a pan called a sauteuse for this and many other preparations. It’s flat like a saucepan, wide like a skillet and very deep with raised sides. An ordinary skillet with work fine provided it’s not super shallow. Peanut oil is most traditional, but a neutral oil such as sunflower or vegetable will work as well. Often I will use a mixture of half peanut and half vegetable for a well-rounded flavor.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is quite hot. Test the heat by dropping a cube of stale bread in–if it sizzles up right away your oil is ready. Add the shallots and fry for a minute or two. Then reduce the heat to medium-low. There is no pre-set or perfect time for frying the shallots. They are done when they are nicely browned but not burned. A good rule is to remove them from the oil before you think they are finished. They will cook a bit more after being removed from the oil, and a little bit undercooked is far preferable to burnt. Overcooked shallots have a strong, bitter flavor that is unpleasant. They will also impart a bitterness to the oil if burned.

To remove the shallots, I use a spider or metal spatula with drainage holes. Tongs will also work, but may damage the crispy texture of the shallots. Place the fried shallots on a paper or kitchen towel placed on top of a plate. Allow to cool, and store at room temperature in plastic or ceramic with a plastic wrap covering. Allow the oil to cool and strain through wire mesh or cheesecloth into a jar. This can also be kept at room temperature, but will eventually become rancid. You may of course refrigerate it, but of course allow for some time to sit out at room temperature before using. The fried shallots may be refrigerated but I find this destroys their texture. They usually don’t last long enough in my house to spoil, even when stored at room temperature. They should last at least a week if covered loosely with plastic wrap.

This procedure can also be used to create other fried garnishes and flavored oils. A very good one is made of spring onions, perhaps with ginger or garlic added. Thin slivers of garlic are also popular, and traditionally used as a garnish for fish and seafood soups as well as salads and noodle dishes.

A final word of caution : the oil will become rancid over time, so always make sure to taste it before bringing it to the table.

Sweet Hot Pickled Carrots

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This recipe is so simple I will dispense with the usual list of ingredients and instructions and just describe the process. Just be sure to read it all the way through. We’re not children here.

What you need for this is a quart-sized mason jar stuffed all the way full with shredded carrots (preferably on the smallest blade set of a mandolin) and a jalapeño sliced or cut into matchsticks. Usually this entails about 12 oz of carrots, with maybe 1/4 of that going to waste on nubs too small to pass through the mandolin. You can also simply grate them, although the texture will be vastly inferior. You could also practice your knife skills on them and cut long julienne by hand but I am not responsible for any bodily harm.

Once you have this mason jar stuffed full of carrots, place a canning funnel in it. If you don’t have a canning funnel, go buy one. Then place a small saucepan on the stove and in it heat 2 cups of seasoned rice wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/3 cup of sugar, and dried, crushed hot red chiles to taste. I use the very hot chinese red chiles and usually grind two of them fresh in a mortar and pestle. Bring this mess up to something close to a boil, enough to dissolve the sugar. Stir it thoroughly.

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Being intelligent about the whole process and using how ever many towels you need, bring the still quite hot mixture in the saucepan over to the quart-sized mason jar stuffed full of carrots and pour the mixture in. It should come to about the point at which the “shoulders” of the jar begin.

Allow this to sit and cool without capping it. Theoretically you could sterilize both the jar and the cap in this procedure. My experience has been that these things just don’t last long enough around willing eaters to warrant that. Once the jar and its contents are cool, cap the jar and refrigerate. The pickle will be ready in a handful of hours (although of course 24 is best), and it is best served chilled.

This is one of the staples of my kitchen, and has proved quite popular with those I make food for. Especially me! These were styled on the Vietnamese do chua and primarily made for banh mi, alongside a spiced daikon pickle that I also make. So it goes without saying that they are a good sandwich topping. They also are great in composed salads and on tossed salads, added to noodle bowls, noodle soups, regular soups, as garnishes, in omelettes, etc. etc. etc. A real kitchen standby, and one that can be a vehicle for your own style and creativity. Tell me what you make with them!