When I was working on the keerai (spinach) pittu recipe last week, I needed a curry to go with it. Jed was still visiting then, so I went for something vegetarian — I was also trying to use up various tired veggies in the fridge. This is a really basic approach to a default Sri Lankan vegetable curry. (It’s usually referred to as a ‘white’ curry there, because it doesn’t contain red chili or turmeric, though it’s actually more of a light tan.)
Step 1 — Chop onions (always step 1 for curries). If you’re feeling energetic, add in some chopped ginger and garlic. Heat oil and sauté with mustard seed, cumin seed, and salt until onions are golden-translucent. Add pepper if you want; if you like fenugreek or fennel seed, feel free to stir some of those in too. (If you put in lots of fenugreek, which is a galactagogue, white curries are traditional preparations for nursing mothers.)
Step 2 — Sauté. Add in whatever veggies you like, based on cooking time — root vegetables cut small and added at least 10 minutes before softer veggies like bell peppers or eggplant. I had some green chilies, tired shredded carrots, chopped sugar snap pea pods, curry leaves, and I’m not sure what else got tossed in.
Step 3 — Add some water and simmer a bit ’til veggies are cooked through. Taste and see if you’d like a little lime juice for balance — I usually do. You could stop and eat it at this point.
Step 4 — If you’d like it a little more rich (recommended), add in a can of coconut milk (or cow / goat / etc. milk is fine too) and simmer, stirring, until well blended. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Step 4 — For added heft, boil some eggs, slice in half, and slip those in too. Yum.
I pulled some greens from the garden to show examples of what else you could sambol — curly kale, dinosaur kale, rainbow chard — and of course, I now have kale sambol coming out of my ears, having made multiple versions of it for this morning’s TV thingie, so I decided that for now, these leaves can be decorative instead.
Sunday brunch segment at WGN, our local station. Shout-out to Kavi who got up at 7 a.m. (very early for a teenager) to be my videographer, and who did TikTok dances behind the iPad to make me laugh and calm me down while I was waiting for them to start.
I am not sure I’ve ever been that nervous in my life — my hand was literally shaking when I started cutting the onion, and good thing I was prepping beforehand, so I could pause and steady myself. I’ve been on live TV a few times before — once for a town hall about sex and the internet, twenty+ years ago, and twice to talk about books on the summer reading segment on local TV.
So why so nervous this time? I think I’m not as confident about cooking as I am about books! I’m just a home cook, no culinary training, etc. But I think it basically went fine — I got in most of what I wanted to say, and I actually managed to cook a little too. But boy, 4 minutes goes REALLY fast.
Kavi’s even cleaning the kitchen for me now while I collapse on the couch. Best daughter.
(Addendum — I wore a kurta top I picked up at Selyn in Sri Lanka and my Sri Lankan 24K gold hoop earrings that my parents bought me when I was little, for good luck. Purple hair is Midnight Tanzanite by Splat! )
(And thanks to Pam Whitehead for building me a beautiful kitchen to cook in!)
A little chaotic today, trying to prep for the TV show tomorrow (I’ll be on live TV, WGN’s Sunday Brunch segment, around 7:35 or so, teaching how to make kale sambol), while also attending ReconveneSFF convention (on a Wild Cards panel in a few hours), and also get the new 100 days challenge kicked off on my fitness group AND start a new writing accountability group, with a 100 days challenge too. It’ll all be fine, but it feels like a LOT of moving parts.
Morning cooking was carrot and green bean curry, which I’m planning to have out on the counter tomorrow, as something you might include in a Sri Lankan meal, along with kale sambol.
Carrot curry was a staple of my early cooking and got me through a lot of grad school, sometimes alternated with green bean curry — at some point, I decided to try putting them together, since the cooking method is almost identical, and yup, I like it.
Just cook the carrots for a while first, so they’re almost cooked through, then add the green beans and cook for a few minutes more. Yumyum.
Young jackfruit has a texture similar to meat, though softer; it’s more delicate, as is the flavor. It’s easy to find online in cans, packed in brine; it’s also often available at grocery stores, especially ones that cater to vegetarians. This savory curry sauce is identical to what I’d use for beef, but gives a notably different (and delicious) result when cooked with jackfruit instead. I’d serve this with rice, a green vegetable, and chutneys, pickles, and/or sambols.
2 medium onions, chopped fine
1 TBL ginger, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
3 TBL vegetable oil
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
1 TBL red chili powder
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
1 lb young jackfruit, cut into bite-size pieces
1/3 cup ketchup
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 tsp salt
2 TBL lime juice
1 cup coconut milk + 1 cup water
1. In a large pot, sauté onions, ginger, and garlic in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown), stirring as needed. Add chili powder and cook 1 minute, stirring. Immediately stir in curry powder, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and lime juice.
2. Add jackfruit and stir on high for a few minutes. Add coconut milk and water, stirring gently to combine. Turn down to medium, and let cook 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally; add water if needed. Serve hot with rice or bread.
I had this sudden brainstorm that I wanted to make Kevin a spinach curry and lamb curry pizza for Valentine’s Day (see next post), and I really did want paneer on it, but I also didn’t have any paneer on hand — not fresh, not in the freezer. Very sad. On the other hand, I had a quart of whole milk, a lemon, cheesecloth, and 30 minutes to spare.
So before long — paneer! Way better than store-bought too, delicate and lovely, reminiscent of burrata in texture and flavor (not quite as rich, though, since there’s no cream), and so easy. I should make paneer more often.
Recipe courtesy The Kitchn: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-paneer-cheese-in-30-minutes-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-57008
A friend asked me for a good spinach curry recipe, and I had to admit that I’ve never managed one I was happy with, so I tried working on it this weekend. I love saag / palak in restaurants, but my earlier attempts came out sort of watery and lacking in flavor; they just made me sad.
So I spent a while looking up recipes, and it seemed like most of the ones I found which might approximate restaurant saag used chopped spinach and went heavy on the cream. Which, okay, cream makes things delicious. But I was hoping to do a vegan version, and also one that was a little bit lighter and healthier, with some good fresh spinach brightness.
The key to that, I think, is the onions. And I know you’ve heard me go on about onions before, and their importance to Sri Lankan cuisine, but seriously, the amount of flavor you get out of a properly cooked onion is hard to beat.
For this, I chopped a mix of red onion and shallot — you could do either separately; I just happened to have both on hand. Yellow or white onions would also be fine, but the red onion and shallots gave a sweetness and delicacy that I thought worked particularly well with the fresh spinach. (And of course, they were awfully pretty contrasting with the curry leaves and green chili as I cooked!)
After that, it was a fairly standard base approach — sauté in oil or ghee with cumin seed and mustard seed (I call for traditional black mustard seed in my recipes, but brown is really fine; I’d avoid yellow, though, as it changes the flavor noticeably) until golden. Keeping heat on medium or even medium-low will reduce the risk of burning if you’ve stepped away to chop something; it’ll take a little longer, but the onions also caramelize beautifully this way, so if you can afford the time, I’d do that.
Add garlic after a bit (if you put it in with the onions initially, it’s susceptible to burning), curry leaves if you have them (there are no good substitutes, so just skip if not), and chopped green chili. (I didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, but if I did, I would have added some with the onions. Since I didn’t, I added a t. of ground ginger later in the dish, with the turmeric and salt.)
This basic approach is what I’d recommend for most of our vegetable curries, and indeed, for curries in general.
I’ve found over the past few years of talking to folks about their cooking habits that a lot of people skip the onions in a dish, or reduce the amount dramatically, not realizing that they’re the base of the flavor. That applies to Italian spaghetti sauce as much as to Sri Lankan curry.
I know chopping onions is a bit of a pain, but it can’t be beat for depth of flavor. There’s a reason why cooking school makes aspiring chefs start with chopping mounds and mounds and mounds of onions.
So once you have the seasoned onions cooked down nicely (see previous post), the next step is to add some more spices — turmeric and salt are really all you need at this point. And then you could use chopped frozen spinach, but if you have fresh baby spinach, it’s lovely — I dumped two bags in here.
You basically can’t stir them at this point without lots of spinach falling out of your pan (I tried), but if you’re just patient and let it be, within a few minutes the spinach will have reduced enough to stir into the onions for a few more minutes.
You could stop the recipe at this point if you’re aiming for super-healthy low-calorie greens, and it would be tasty! But I definitely wanted a sauce, and anyway, coconut makes things better. So I added 1 cup (half a can) of coconut milk and stirred that in too.
You’re almost done at this point — the last step, always, is to check the seasonings. I’ve been surprised to learn, over the last few years of working on the cookbook, how many people are intimidated by phrases like ‘salt to taste.’
As a very rough estimate, most ‘feed 4-6 people’ dishes I use call for a teaspoon of salt for the pot, so if you’re really not sure, I’d go with something like that.
(Better to undersalt than over, so if you’re not sure, start with 1/2 a teaspoon — you can always add more, but you can’t take salt out of the curry!
If you DO oversalt, that’s tricky to fix — if it’s a dish where you can add potatoes, I’d do that (you can cut them up and cook them in the microwave separately, or boil them, so that you’re adding cooked potatoes to the dish, rather than raw potatoes which will make the whole dish cook for an extra 20-30 minutes, dulling the overall flavors.
Alternately, make a second batch of the dish, without salt. Combine them, so the salt flavors the whole thing more evenly. And if you have too much for your needs, then freeze some. That’s a lot of work, though, and requires you to have enough ingredients on hand to do this. Or you can freeze the over-salted batch to fix on another day, labelling appropriately. Yes, I’ve done this. Have I mentioned that I *hate* wasting food?)
I always take a little bit of sauce at the end, dab it on the back of my left hand, and lick it up to taste. Sometimes it’s perfect; sometimes it wants a little more salt. For this one, I added another 1/2 t. of salt, and then a T of fresh-squeezed lime juice. (Bottled is fine if you don’t have fresh on hand.)
Be a little careful adding lemon or lime if you’re using cream instead of coconut milk — when acid hits hot dairy, it tends to curdle. You’ll make cheese, which is another post altogether. So stir in the cream or coconut milk, let it cook and blend with the other ingredients for a few minutes, make sure your heat is at medium and not boiling over, and THEN add the lime juice.
The result will be glorious. 🙂 Enjoy with rice and curry, or as we did this weekend, spread on naan and toasted as delicious flatbread / pizza.
Will post actual recipe in next post, with measurements. 🙂
Sri Lankan Spinach Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4; gluten-free, vegan)
(This is the actual recipe — see previous two posts for Cook’s Illustrated-style explication of recipe development + paean to onions.)
2 medium onions (preferably red), chopped fine
2 T oil or ghee
1 t. black mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 T ginger, chopped
1 dozen curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
22 ounces baby spinach (2 bags)
1 c. coconut milk
1 T lime juice
1. Sauté onions in oil or ghee over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, ginger, and curry leaves.
2. After a few minutes, add chopped garlic, salt, and turmeric, and continue cooking until golden-translucent, stirring as needed, about 15 minutes total.
3. Add spinach to pan (in two batches if necessary, depending on size of pan), let cook down for a few minutes. When reduced, stir into onions and cook for a few more minutes.
4. Add coconut milk and stir; add lime juice and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve hot with rice or roti.
I could photograph this spinach curry ALL DAY. 🙂
(And hey, ten years in, my zinc island countertop really has weathered and patinated the way I’d hoped. Makes me so happy. (It’s not heat-proof, though, so use with care.))
(Sri Lankan spinach curry recipe in previous post.)
Quick question (primarily for vegetarians / vegans).
Some of you may remember that I did two little mini cookbooks before Feast, The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib. I thought to keep the price point low on those e-books, so they’re more samplers — marshmallows is just 13 recipes, and vegan is 41 recipes. The vegan one is priced at $5.99 currently. (Marshmallows is $2.99).
I was thinking about it more, and I keep feeling like heck, at least half of Feast is already vegan (as is much Sri Lankan cuisine by nature, esp. since we use coconut milk instead of cow milk). Maybe I should just do another edition of that book, and put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in there?
I’d already been thinking about doing this for a while, and then last night I just read an article about the vegan race wars in Nosrat’s Best American Food Writing 2019: “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color” (Khusbhu Shah). (Recommended, fairly short: https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/vegan-race-wars-white-veganism) Which emphasized to me that it’d be good to have more visible representation in America of vegan cuisine from other parts of the world.
But if I do put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in this vegan e-book, it does undercut the main book sales. (As a reminder, I have 2000 hardcover print copies sitting in a warehouse right now. Eep.) To avoid that, I should probably raise the price to something closer to the ebook price for Feast? (Mascot Books — I don’t see a pre-order page for Feast ebook on Amazon — am I missing it? Jed, do you know?)
WHAT’S THE ACTUAL QUESTION, MARY ANNE?
I guess this is a question mostly for vegans (I’m not sure whom I know who is vegan, aside from Swati?) and maybe vegetarians:
Would you be interested in buying a 100+ recipe vegan version of Feast of Serendib, at something like $9.99 for the ebook? With a possible print edition to follow eventually, if there’s interest and I have time? (Really, more if Stephanie Bailey and Heather Rainwater Campbell have time, as I suspect much of the production work would fall to them.)
Or should I just stop thinking about this and just leave the little vegan sampler up there as is? (We’re going to have our Feast cover designer Jeremy John Parker change the cover regardless, to make it look more like the Feast cover and less like something I hacked together on Canva, so I have to upload a new edition anyway, which is another part of why I’m thinking about all this.)