Chicken Curry by James/Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

There are lots of ways to change the food system, and you and I aren’t likely to do it. It’s going to be our kids who do it.

Two weeks ago I threw together a quick chicken curry and both the kids liked it, so I asked, “Is this a keeper?” and they nodded, chewing hungrily.

So, last week, when 12-year-old James got home from school, I said, “We’re having chicken curry tonight.”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “You’re going to make it.” He didn’t respond. “I’ll do all the prep and you’re going to make it.”

He said, “OK.”

An hour before I wanted dinner on the table, I diced an onion. I’ve already taught him how to hold a knife and halve, slice, or dice an onion; tonight I wanted him to see how easy chicken curry was to make. I sliced up a package of boneless chicken thighs and set out several spices and the chicken stock I’d made two days earlier from the roasted chicken. Then I called James, who was either playing games on his laptop or doing homework—my guess was the latter, given how quick he was to close the computer and trot downstairs.

I had him heat the pot (my favorite family pot, the 5.5-quart Le Creuset; folks with kids, great Mother’s Day/Father’s Day gift! Fwd this post to spouse!), pour the oil, and sweat the onions; I showed him how much salt needed to go on the onions as they sweated. Then I had him mix the curry spices. Once the onion was properly tender, he added the chicken and basically stir-fried till all the pink was gone. I then had him clear a spot on the bottom of the pan where he poured the spices and let them toast for a minute before stirring them all in.  I had him pour in a cup of wine and a cup of stock (made from Monday’s roasted chicken carcass; here’s my easy weekly chicken stock recipe, if you want to make it). “Bring it to a simmer, turn it to low, cover it, and you’re done. It’ll be ready to thicken with a slurry in a half hour.” James has long loved to play with cornstarch and water.

“Cool,” he said, and departed.

Now here’s the best part. The curry came out great, and Donna said, “What recipe were you working from?” I told her I was just winging it. Then I said to James, “You could make that yourself now, couldn’t you, without a recipe?”

He shrugged and nodded.

And this, dear readers, it occurred to me later while walking the dog, is how we used to learn to cook and why, when we stopped cooking (starting in the 1950s), we started needing recipes to cook from once we finally woke up and realized how important it is to cook our own food. We used to learn by helping the main cook of the house, watching what they did. It’s why when you ask really good but untrained cooks why they do something, they often say, “Because that’s the way I always do it.” What they really mean is, “That’s how I saw it being made before I started making it myself.”

Again, there are lots of ways to change the food system but you and I aren’t likely to do it. Many are starting, but it’s going to be our kids who will really make the changes. I’ll probably be dead before a decent farm bill passes. But maybe James will grow up to be a senator. (Not what I hope, but it’s possible.) Without doubt he will cast a vote for many. That’s why it’s important to teach kids to cook.

Notes on the following recipe: I add cashews and cilantro, because I like them. The kids are getting their veg from the chicken stock, but I also stir-fried some pea pods and made cucumber-cumin-lime-juice-garlic-yogurt salad for Donna and me. If you want you can add green or red veg to the curry itself—diced bell pepper, cauliflower florets, chopped spinach. As you wish.

James’s Chicken Curry with Cashews

  • vegetable oil to coat pan
  • 1 Spanish onion, diced
  • salt to taste
  • 6–8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon black cumin/kala jeera (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (reduce if you’ve got heat-sensitive palates at the table)
  • 1 cup white wine (optional)
  • 1 to 2 cups chicken stock or water (see note below)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons cold water, stock, or wine
  • Cashews, unsalted, and toasted (best bought raw and toasted fresh, but we just opened a can)
  • Cilantro to garnish
  1. In a 5-quart saucepan over medium-high to high heat, add enough oil to coat the pan, then add the onion. Stir it to coat it with the oil. Add a hefty four-fingered pinch of salt (James added four James-sized pinches at my instruction).
  2. Add the chicken when the onion is tender (the longer you cook the onion, the sweeter and more complex the finished dish will be; see my book Twenty for more on the power of the onion). Stir continuously until the chicken has lost all its pink.
  3. While the onion and chicken are cooking, combine the curry, cumins, and cayenne.
  4. Push the onion and chicken aside to clear a patch of pan and add the spices so that they toast a little on the dry hot pan.  Then stir it all together.
  5. Add 2 cups of liquid. (Note: I like the acidity of the wine, but you can use 2 cups of stock. If using store-bought stock, I urge you to use only 1 cup along with 1 cup of wine.) Drag your flat-edged wooden spoon over every inch of the bottom of the pan to scrape up the fond, spices, and protein that may have stuck there. Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to low. The curry is done when the chicken is tender, 20 or 30 minutes. This can be made up to this point several hours in advance, or up to 3 days and refrigerated.
  6. Make a slurry out of the cornstarch and cold water, stock, or wine.  Pour enough of it into the curry till you reach the thickness you want.
  7. Serve with basmati rice and top with the toasted cashews and cilantro.

A couple of good books if you want to learn more about Indian food: Suvir Saran’s Indian Home Cooking, and the very elegant Madhur Jaffrey’s At Home with Madhur Jaffrey.

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.