When I decided to go vegan, I thought it would be harder. I love milk. I love cheese. One of my favourite comfort foods is homemade mac and cheese. I thought I would miss these things. But it turns out almond milk is great–in my tea or for cereal. And when I’m craving a creamy savoury dish, I make curry.
It’s not only easy, but incredibly versatile. It goes with whatever you have in the fridge. You can pour it on top of any grain. It keeps all week, for lunch and dinner, and you can turn it into a different dish every day just by adding new vegetables and eating it with different sides.
You need to know about the spices. There are mixes you can buy. There are powders and pastes and jarred sauces. But I want you to think about doing this from scratch. I want you to think about whole seeds and dried leaves and fresh herbs. It’s the difference between dinner and a great meal.
Coriander is fragrant. Cumin is pungent. Cayenne is warming. Turmeric is colour. Green herbs are cooling (I like parsley; most like cilantro). An Indian cook once told me she could live with curry leaves and coriander seeds alone. Perhaps I’m lucky to live in a place with a big Indian population, but if you have an ethnic food aisle in your grocery store, you can probably find these spices for cheap. Buy in bulk and get only what you need. I store my spices in the small 125ml canning jars. They stack neatly in my cupboard, you can see through the glass, and they’ve lasted me months.
Spices should be toasted in a dry pan–no oil. Then crush them in a mortar and pestle or use a coffee grinder, if you have one just for spices. If you don’t have either of these things, wrap your whole spices in a clean dish towel and bash them with something hard, like a rolling pin, a heavy saucepan, or a bottle of wine.
For a weeknight curry, I make sure the spices are ground to powder and throw them straight in. But if I have a bit more time, I keep everything mostly whole and wrap it up in cheesecloth. Not just the spices, but the ginger and garlic, too. This little package can sit and steep, then be plucked out before serving.
The fresh ingredients you need should be kitchen staples already: ginger, garlic, onion, and coconut milk. I love leeks, but green onions are good, too. Sauté the white part, then garnish with the green. If white onion is what you have in your pantry, use it. If you like red best, use that. Canned coconut milk isn’t the cheapest thing, but look for the two-for-one or caselot sales and stock up.
I am perfectly happy to eat coconut curry, with some red lentils to thicken it up, then poured over rice. That’s my weeknight curry.
In a large saucepan, dry toast the spices. Crush everything in a mortar and pestle, except the chili, star anise, and bay leaves. Those I keep whole so I can fish them out later because they’re not very edible if you don’t grind them to a powder. The crushed spices go back into the pan with turmeric and a little canola oil. Add diced ginger, garlic, and leeks, but any onion will do. Sauté until tender and fragrant. Pour in a can of coconut milk. Add in the bay leaves, chili, and star anise. Add a half cup of split lentils. Cover and simmer 20-30 minutes. A few minutes before eating, add frozen peas or whatever leftover vegetables are in the fridge. Serve over rice or if I haven’t done any planning at all, couscous, which is ready in minutes.
On the weekends, I cook my curry in a big Dutch oven. It starts the same, by dry toasting the spices. Then crush ginger and garlic (don’t bother peeling) and wrap everything up in cheesecloth. To the pot, I add inch size pieces of carrot, celery, onion. I like some combination of potato, cauliflower, squash, or eggplant. These kinds of hearty vegetables need to go in now.
Dried beans or lentils need a lot of time and a lot of water. Add the coconut milk, then two cans of water. If you’re using pre-cooked or canned beans, just rinse the can with a little extra water. Lastly, salt and pepper, cover, and put it in a 350 oven. Cook for an hour or until everything is tender.
Even when I add beans or lentils, it can be nice to have a crispy protein. Pieces of firm and pressed tofu, tossed in seasoned flour, then fried in a pan with a little canola oil, the same but with chickpeas, or even frozen, breaded veggie nuggets baked in the oven. I like chopped nuts on top, as well as some fresh green herbs. Baby spinach and frozen peas are perfect last minute additions which add also colour and freshness. Don’t miss out on adding flavour to your grains. If I have lemons, I throw a cut half into the pot.
Once you master the basic recipe, once you feel confident in what you can make, the rest is up to you.