Every now and then I force myself to explore to the bottom of my vegetable drawer to unearth ancient produce and recover the dregs from past trips to the farmers market. While some people may dread looking into the dark reaches of their fridge, I actually enjoy the challenge of coming up with delicious ways to use up every last veggie.
If you cook with recipes, I can understand your reticence to delve into the far reaches of your fridge. Aside from the occasional bag of unidentifiable mush, chances are, you’re not going to find a recipe that happens to include all the expiring vegetables you have on hand.
That’s why I’ve come up with this framework for a delicious vegetable curry that you can use to clean out your fridge the next time you find yourself stumped with odds and ends.
The curry in the photos came together after a recent expedition into the vegetable drawer. My search turned up some celery tops I’d saved that were now wilted and yellowing. A baby leak who’s leaves had all but turned to mush, and what was once a bag of verdant green beans that now lay in a limp sorrowful state.
I also found a lone potato, still fresh, but orphaned after its siblings had been consumed. Digging even deeper, the remainder of a head of garlic turned up. It had gone beyond sprouting, and now sported some crinkly roots that yearned for water.
While I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to use spoiled vegetables, the beauty of using spices is that they tend to cover up a lack of freshness in produce that’s right on the edge.
Spices: First you want to toast the spices in your pan with some oil or clarified butter. The intense heat draws out volatile oils releasing the potency that lurks within. I usually use cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek, garam masala and a few cloves to start with. Like anything in cooking it’s all about making something that tastes good to you, so go on and experiment to find the perfect blend of spices for your tastes.
Aromatic Vegetables: After the spices have become fragrant (but not burned), you want to add anything aromatic, such as onions, leeks, ginger, garlic, celery, carrots, and peppers. These should be minced up fairly small and as you want them to be very caramelized. The Maillard reaction, in which heat causes sugars to react with amino acids to produce new flavor compounds, is what gives a vegetarian curry its full savory flavor. That’s why it’s critical to include a lot of aromatics and give them the time to fully brown. You should do this over a medium low heat in a heavy bottomed pan or else the surface of the aromatics will start burning before the insides have a chance to caramelize. This process can take an hour or longer depending on the quantity and size of your vegetables (the smaller they’re chopped the faster it will go).
Substantive Vegetables: These are the vegetables that are going to make up the bulk of your dish. They may not contribute a lot of aroma, but they give your curry substance and texture. Legumes, potatoes, eggplant, and squash are all perfect for this job. Just cut them up in large chunks and add them after your aromatics have fully caramelized.
Liquid: If you prefer a dryer curry, you only need to add a few tablespoons of liquid and cover the pan with a lid. Most vegetables will release some water on their own, so by using a lid, you trap the moisture in allowing the vegetables to cook in their own juices. If you want a saucier curry, add more liquid. Water, stock, wine, and coconut milk are all great liquids, each with its own unique characteristics. For example, adding wine will make the curry fruity and a little tangy, while coconut milk will make it rich and creamy.
Seasonings: Add salt, cayenne pepper and sugar to adjust the saltiness, spiciness and sweetness of a dish. This is mostly a matter of personal preference, so add a little at a time and taste your curry until it works for you. Because some of the liquid will evaporate during cooking, I usually season food twice. I go light on the first seasoning at the beginning so the seasonings have a chance to permeate the food but don’t get too concentrated as some of the liquid evaporates. Then I’ll taste and adjust the seasoning just before I serve it to adjust for anything that’s lacking.
Herbs: Fresh herbs such as cilantro, mint, lemon or lime juice added at the very end lend freshness to a curry that’s been simmering for a long time.
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.