Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, chef Cheetie Kumar walks us through how to build up all the flavors of a delicious yet delicate fish curry in under 45 minutes.
When chef Cheetie Kumar from Garland restaurant in Raleigh, NC visited us in the MUNCHIES test kitchen, we got to chatting about what makes a good recipe on the internet these days. Is it keeping the steps and cook time to a minimum? Is it making sure everyone out there can get their hands on hard-to-find ingredients? To both of those questions, we say no.
Recipes, like good stories, should be written however long they need to be in order to produce the perfect result. Cutting out intermediary steps just to appeal to the lazier home cooks among us robs everyone of a better, more delicious end result. We're taking a moral stand against that in the Test Kitchen today.
And “obscure” ingredients? If you’re coming to recipes online, you’re already a click away from whatever type of chili you need but had never heard of until reading this ingredient list. Through the magic of Google and probably also Amazon, you can find a way to get your hands on pretty much any ingredient you can imagine, even if your small town (or big city) doesn’t have a grocery store that stocks non-US-centric goods. But if you can’t get something shipped to your door? “Even if it’s that crucial component that you can’t find,” says Cheetie, “you can still make it good.” She's a big proponent of the improvisational chef. She says you can make do with what you've got.
Today, she’s making a fish curry that, all things considered, does not require anything the average grocery store—big or small, urban or rural—wouldn’t give you access to. But if you wanna get picky about it—which she does—she has a preferred brand of coconut milk that she just couldn’t find in Brooklyn, so we’re working with Goya brand today. “It has some preservatives in it which I’m not crazy about, but it’ll work,” she says. We’ll make do.
Before we get started, she raids our rooftop garden for a few garnishes for the plate. Sadly, we do not have our own fish farm on the roof of VICE, so she’s brought her own red snapper. But she picks a few peppery nasturtium flowers and leaves, plus some perfectly purple kohlrabi plants that will get a quick pickle as a sort of condiment for the dish later. Collectively, we discover just how tender and sweet a young kohlrabi can be, and we have a hard time not eating the whole thing raw while she works in the kitchen.
Back inside, she starts building a fish stock, which will be the base of her curry. She’s adamant about not wasting any of the beautiful red snapper she broke down with care earlier, so she’s making this stock from scratch using some aromatics like ginger and onion. But you can use store-bought if you’re buying your snapper already filleted and you don’t have scrap bones to work with.
Next she makes her curry paste. Into our giant molcajete goes ginger, fresh turmeric, coriander, garlic, shallots, Serrano chili, and a bit of cayenne pepper. She pounds away until it’s consistent and well combined but not perfectly smooth. “You could use a food processor, but this is more fun,” she says. (You might want to add a bit of water to help your food processor along if you do, she notes.) She also suggests wearing some latex gloves if you're not fond of having turmeric turn your fingers yellow for the rest of the day.
She halves some baby fingerling potatoes and tosses them with oil, salt, and pepper, and pops them in the oven on a baking sheet, face down, to get nice and crispy.
To build up the base of the curry, she sautees shallots in a splash of grapeseed oil, then adds the smashed paste and fresh curry leaves. They sputter and spit at her a bit when she tosses those in, when the moisture from the leaves hits the hot oil, but she doesn’t seem fazed. She deglazes the Dutch oven with a splash of white wine and her quick stock, which she strained a moment ago.
After the pot has come up to a simmer for a few minutes, she adds in the coconut milk, tastes everything, and adjusts her salt accordingly.
She lets the curry base simmer for a bit, while she makes a quick pickle out of the kohlrabi. Careful not to knick a fingertip, she slices the soft veggie on a mandolin, skin and all, since it's so young and tender still and the skins haven’t gotten thick and woody and unpleasant. She simply squeezes a whole lemon over top of everything, and adds in some thinly sliced scallions for color, and lets the bowl sit while she finishes the curry.
Now that the coconut milk has thoroughly combined with the rest of the cooking liquid, she adds the chunks of red snapper, which will only need a few minutes to cook through, and roasted potatoes.
Next, she moves over to our gas range, instead of the electric induction burner the curry's been simmering on, to make a tarka. (Nothing quite like big flames to make sure you’re getting your spices thoroughly toasted, she explains.) Into hot oil, she tosses whole mustard seeds, which start popping like teeny, tiny popcorn almost immediately. Then shallot, more curry leaves, and chilies go in next, all spitting at her like earlier, and everyone flinches away except for her. Nerves of steel on this chef, it seems. The tarka pan gets deglazed with a bit of the nearly-finished curry, then the whole mixture gets added back to the curry pot.
When the curry has finally finished simmering and once been all plated up with nasturtium flowers and cilantro leaves, we are blessedly allowed to dive in. Cheetie is embarrassed she didn’t also cook some basmati rice to serve this over, but for those of us in the kitchen who have watched this whole thing come together, we’re too hungry to wait for any more water to boil, let alone steam rice. (You should do that at home, though, for sure.) We’re unabashedly going at it with spoons, ladling fluffy chunks of snapper into our mouths and finishing the bite with a crunchy, lemony kohlrabi pickle slice for a composed bite that feels too perfect to have come together in less than 45 minutes.
But Farideh and Cheetie were right, when talking about recipes earlier. No corners were cut and no step was left out for the sake of convenience, proving that all the little extra efforts—the homemade stock, the kohlrabi pickle, the hand-ground curry paste—might make it feel like you’re overcomplicating a simple recipe, but it's what needed to be done. And damn was it all worth it.