I didn't grow up eating ethnic food. Exotic meals included taco nights, with crispy taco shells filled with seasoned ground beef and shredded lettuce and cheddar cheese, or a Bisquick-crust pizza, again with seasoned ground beef, tomato sauce and shredded cheese. My Mom was--and is--a great home cook, but when I was growing up we ate platters of fried pork chops with mushroom gravy, chicken and rice casseroles and well-done beef roasts with potatoes and carrots. It was the 80s after all.
I distinctly remember when a boyfriend took me to a Vietnamese (or maybe it was Cambodian?) restaurant in Boston and I had my first encounter with lemongrass and fish sauce. I was about 19 years old, and I can still taste that green papaya salad in my memory. The low-fat paranoia of the early 90s stunted my food experience slightly, but living in New York City with diverse roommates found me in all-you-can-eat sushi bars, kosher and Filipino restaurants and taquerias. I fell in love with it all.
Even so, I don't think I purchased an avocado from a grocery store until I was in my mid-20s, and my cooking at home mimicked traditional continental fare with just a little influence from my time spent living in Germany and traveling through Europe. It really wasn't until Elie and I started dating that my palate expanded, and I started experimenting with eating and then cooking Middle Eastern, regional Mexican, South American, Indian and Southeast Asian foods.
I think I mentioned this before with my pho recipe, but I used to get hung up on authenticity with ethnic cooking. And it can be a really important part of understanding a culture to study the genesis of a dish and the specific role of each ingredient and how those ingredients reflect the source of the dish, the land and its role in a society. I love doing that kind of research.
But, sometimes you just want to makes something quick and delicious, something that's a hybrid of many different dishes you've tried. That's how I developed a method for my go-to coconut curry, which is neither distinctly Indian or Thai or African. I love the deeply rich and satisfying taste and feel of a creamy, warming coconut curry enriched with onions and garlic, toasted spices and tomatoes. This particular dish comes from experimenting with many different curries from this Vij's cookbook combined with a crave-inducing Somali chicken stew from the Cherry Bombe cookbook.
It's what I want to eat on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa with Elie, warm bowl in hand, watching one more episode of Tidying Up. Just kidding. Elie doesn't watch Tidying Up with me. I have to sneak those episodes in when he's out with the boys. We need a new series to binge-watch together. Any suggestions?
This is also a perfect make-ahead recipe to deliver to a friend who is sick or to serve when friends come to dinner. It reheats well and freezes beautifully. And if you're on one of those new year, new you eating regimens, you could increase the amount of broth and just serve it as a stew without the rice. Or, you could try it over roasted or mashed sweet potatoes, which would probably be delicious.
Speaking of eating plans, I've been experimenting with a gut-healing diet for the past three months, which you might have read about in my intentions post for this year. Would you be interested in hearing more about that and the process I'm going through? Or about nutrition- and health-related posts in general? I haven't made nutrition a big focus on this site, but it is a passion in my life and I feel like my views have shifted a little over the past few years with being open-minded to new research on gut health and its impact on overall health and well-being.
In any case, this curry is delicious and can be adapted to be dairy-free (omitting the ghee), vegan (omitting the chicken) and using any vegetables you like. Adjust the spice level by using either a half or whole jalapeño, with or without the seeds. And if you're like Elie and you don't like the taste of cumin or cardamom, leave it out and it's still flavorful. When choosing coconut milk, try to find one that does not contain guar gum, like the Native Forest, Simple (available at Whole Foods or on Amazon) as that can be irritating to the gut.
Although the title says this is a 'Chicken, Cauliflower and Kale Coconut Curry' this is a completely customizable curry, meant to work with any vegetables and with or without chicken. The ingredient list looks long, but this dish comes together quickly. You can absolutely use already cooked and shredded chicken and just add that in at the end, or leave the chicken out altogether. If you have ground cumin and cardamom and not the whole seeds, use that instead. Toasting the whole seeds just brings out more of the essential oils. And if you don't feel like dicing up all the vegetables, you can toss the onion, garlic and jalapeño in the food processor. But then you have one more dish to wash.
I hope you enjoy! And please do comment and let me know what you would like to see in this space this year.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the ghee or oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the chicken thighs and cook on the first side until the chicken is deeply golden. Turn and cook on the other side until golden. Remove the chicken to a bowl and set aside.
If the pot looks too dry, add another tablespoon of ghee or oil. Add the onions, garlic, jalapeño, ginger and sea salt, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to lift off all the browned bits from the chicken. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the onion has softened. Stir in the spices and let those cook in the residual oil for a few minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir, and then let the tomato paste sit on the bottom of the pot and begin to brown just a bit.
Pour in one cup of the chicken stock and the coconut milk, stirring and scraping up all of the bits of tomato paste and any spices from the bottom of the pan. Once the stock and coconut milk has been fully incorporated, add the cauliflower and the kale and the reserved chicken thighs. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until the cauliflower has just cooked through and the chicken is done. If you want the curry to be more like a stew or it's not saucy enough, stir in another cup of chicken stock. Take two forks and shred the chicken. Stir in the fresh cilantro and serve over rice, if desired.