Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Browning onions; a crude curry

One of the first disillusioning discoveries the home cook makes is that softening and browning onions takes a lot longer than the recipe books state. You have to fuss over them as well, or else bits of onion stick to the pan, and burn.

Butter, which itself browns easily, helps the browning process. But you need quite a lot of butter for even one onion, because of the separation of the solids and liquid, which evaporates. That does not happen to oil; so, to ensure that there is lubrication in the pan, I usually brown onions in a butter/oil mixture. They need regular stirring, because the oil will not protect the butter from burning. Turning up the heat in an effort to speed the process is a bad idea.

Brown onions enrich the sauce in a stew or a curry. Last night, I made a chicken curry, of the kind that is likely to feature leftover turkey in many homes at the end of this month. It is the kind of dish -- makeshift, and hot -- that I love to prepare when I'm cooking for myself.

I browned my onion, and threw in a chopped clove of garlic and a finely chopped (small) knob of ginger, along with 1/3 tsp cumin seeds and 4 cardamoms -- both crunched a bit in a mortar. After another couple of minutes of stirring and frying, I poured in the remains of some roast chicken gravy (I had about 125 ml) and a ladleful of stock, along with a little salt, 1/3 tsp turmeric, and 1/3 tsp chilli powder. I let this bubble for five minutes. Then I added leftover chicken, and simmered for five minutes longer.

Browning the onions apart, this meal -- including some boiled rice -- was very quick and simple to prepare. It was far nicer than any takeaway I've had recently. The ginger was the key ingredient, lifting but not dominating all the other flavours.


Lisa said...

One thing that really helps brown/soften/cook onions is to salt them while cooking. It helps break them down faster without burning.

Nicholas Clee said...

That's interesting, Lisa - thanks. I have read that salting inhibits browning; but I am more inclined to believe your account.

Lisa said...

Nicholas, it makes sense it would inhibit the browning process (that's why they don't burn as easily) - but it definitely helps break them down (soften) faster.......then they brown;). Try it next time you cook and let me know how they turn out for you;).

I also salt tomatoes when cooking them - e.g. when making a curry that calls for fresh (blanched/peeled/chopped) tomatoes...it really helps break them down much faster than without salt. I don't know about you - but I get a little impatient waiting for the tomatoes to break down and give me that lovely, thick sauce I'm aiming for.

Nicholas Clee said...

Yes, that makes sense. I am unsure sometimes about using salt. In cooking water, salt will speed the softening of vegetables: does that mean that the vegetables will lose more nutrients to the water, or will they lose fewer nutrients because of the faster cooking time? If you're boiling potatoes, do you salt the water to aid softening, or leave out the salt, so that they don't become mushy?

Lisa said...

I'm not sure about how much nutrition would be lost (because of salt) OR retained (because of faster cooking time) when cooking vegetables in salted water. I would think it depends on the type of veg (now we're getting into 'chemistry', and that ain't my forté, lol!).

As a rule (for myself) - I always salt the *water* for: carrots, peas, green beans, rice, and potatoes - or similarly cooked veg. What I've noticed, is that veg cooked in salted water tends to 'need' less salt at the table. That's just what experience has taught me. I don't know about you, but I hate tasteless veg that needs tons of salt at the table. This isn't to say I like very salty food -- because I don't.

When sautéing onions, or trying to break down something like tomatoes on a highish heat - I always salt them. Again - I find I need less salt at the table (always tasting as I go along, especially if the recipe calls for 'stock' of some sort - in which case, I sparingly use salt on the onions).

Potatoes. Ahhh. Each variety cooks differently. But, as a rule of thumb, I always salt the water. Not to hasten cooking (never entered my mind), but to make sure the flavour is well infused so I don't need to add so much later.

The only time I've had potatoes turn out mushy is when they've been left too long on the boil and have simply overcooked. When that happens? I simply set aside for potato soup (easy to freeze!). I'm flexible like that:p. Plus - I hate waste!


Lisa said...

Incidentally - potatoes absorb salt in a big way! So I tend not to use very much when boiling them.

As a side note/tip?
If you've cooked a stew or curry and have somehow added too much salt? Don't throw it away! Simply add a quartered {peeled} potato. Remove the potato after 20+ mins - and the salt level should be reduced considerably! (If the recipe calls for potatoes - simply add another potato).

Nicholas Clee said...

You're full of interesting information, Lisa. Thank you.