A Hint of Allspice

When I was younger, looking for a cure to the darker moods of the seasonal doldrums, I used to lie with my back on the floor, my butt up against the lounge, and my legs in an L-shape up on the cushion. Using the chair in reverse, basically, I could lay there a long time, staring into nothingness. Well not always nothing–sometimes a spider would crawl across the ceiling and capture my attention.

I didn’t think about time, either, and whether it had any worth. You waste it on stupid things like estimating how many holes are in each ceiling panel and postulating whether every individual panel has the same amount. Sure, I could have gone about it scientifically and actually taken down two panels, counted, and multiplied–but that would have taken away the reason for wasting time by staring at the ceiling.

I’m not gonna lie and pretend things are different just because I’m older, because they aren’t. Now I just find different ways to waste time. Now, I cook. I cook like a grandma with a family reunion just a few short days away.

Even if I’m cooking, I’m not just cooking. Tonight I was somewhere in the Caribbean smelling curry. Goat curry, chicken curry, fish curry–it doesn’t matter, because it’s the spices taking me away, the curry powder with the hint of allspice. Then I realize it’s really the smell of the corner bodega that fed me more nights than not when I lived in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, off of St. Johns Place.

Suddenly I’m walking that street, stepping on crack vials that pop like popcorn under my Chuck T’s, to get to Grand Army Plaza or Flatbush Ave. or the subway station. The clothes the women wear are the color of azure oceans and golden sunsets–islands they know first-hand–not the dour black turtle necks and sullen black chinos of Manhattan, but much more beautiful and vibrant. The neighborhood might have been down but it wasn’t out. The ladies hanging out on the porch stoops and around the wrought-iron gates are laughing at stories of people and islands their kids will never really know.

Me, my hands are full with an aluminum container heavy with curry chicken, rice and peas, and fried plantains. I walk across the street taking in the jazz notes of the impromptu lives that pass in front of my eyes and into my ears. I sit down on my stoop to eat, wide eyed and smiling. I unwrap the plastic wrap to get at the roti, steamed and kept warm by the food underneath. I peel back the foil and lift the top. It is so full of food it is smashed together and flat like a cake, but the smell is the smell of my neighborhood.

I will know this neighborhood. The slap of the sapphire-blue screen door at the bodega. How the first time I order food at the back counter it is a warm ham sandwich with cheese; how over the months I’ll work my way up to a Cubano and a bag of plantain chips; and by the time I move away I’m eating goat neck curry and sucking the bones like I was raised on the stuff.

I turned down the heat on the stove to simmer. Sometimes it is about hunger and quantity, but tonight it’s about the taste, about how the vibrant spice of curry lightens my dark mood at the very moment when I want to run away and never come back.

Get your Bodega Chicken Curry Recipe here

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Bodega Chicken Curry

I like to use a wok for these kinds of dishes. Besides everyone should own a good wok. By good I am not talking about those little non-stick thingies hanging from the wall at the five and dime. Those aren’t even big enough to make a half order of fried rice for a toddler.

What I am talking about is wandering down to your local restaurant supply store and heading for their wok section. They have blue carbon steel woks that are cheap, will last forever, are non-stick by nature and come in all sizes. I have seen one big enough that I could take a hot bath in it if I wanted but all we are looking for is a 16 to 18 inch wok. That is the measurement from one side of the rim to the other. It will seem huge but when you go to make fried rice for a family of four it all the sudden won’t seem big enough.

I use a wok for deep frying, making stews like this, fried rice and countless other dishes. It is the shape of the wok that makes it work so well.

In the end you can use a heavy bottomed pot, cast iron pot or enameled Dutch oven to make this. I just happen to like a wok.

I serve this with rice and peas and pot roasted collard greens. Roti is a must.

Serves 4

Island style curry powder:

1 tablespoon each, whole cumin, coriander, black pepper, anise seed, and brown mustard seeds

2 teaspoons whole allspice berries

1 tablespoon ground tumeric

1. Toast all the seeds and berries until fragrant in a skillet placed over medium heat. Remove them from the pan and let the spices cool.

Once cooled place everything including the turmeric into a spice grinder and grind to a fine grind.

For the curry:

peanut or canola oil

8 chicken drumsticks or thighs, skin on or off your call

2 yellow onions, about 3 1/2 cups, julienned

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1/4 cup fresh garlic, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly

4 to 6 tablespoons curry powder

8 to 10 fingerling potatoes, peeled and chunked

6 to 8 sprigs of thyme

2 cups chicken stock

1 cup water

if you want to add heat add habanero, jalapeno or whatever diced hot pepper you want.

kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Place a wok or heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add enough oil to coat the pan. Add the drumsticks or thighs and brown them on all sides. Then remove them from the pan to a plate.

2. Add the onions and more oil it needed and cook until the onions begin to soften. Add the ginger, garlic and curry powder (if you want heat add peppers now). Cook until fragrant.

3. Add the stock and water. Add the chicken back to the pot along with the potatoes and thyme. Season with salt and pepper

4. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover, stir now and again and simmer until tender. About 30 to 45 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

5. Serve.