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Culinary Experimentation 101: Homemade Curry

While recently texting with a foodie friend who is an amazing cook, I mentioned that I was hungry for curried lentils and planned to whip some up for dinner. His response was that it sounded great but I was going to make my own curry, right? Uh, yes, of course I was going to make my own curry. Who doesn’t?! Pshhh…Well, me. But my friend’s challenge inspired me. I love curry. I seriously think it’s possible to be addicted to curry. As a busy single mom, I’m often looking for the shortcut (pre-cut, pre-cooked, pre-made) that will make getting food into my kids’ bellies easier. But my friend is a purist and on his culinary adventures he has discovered that it’s often just as easy to make from scratch many of the things that we buy prepared. And as we know, the homemade version is often a hundred times better.

So, I was gonna do it. First step was to find a recipe. Sounds easy enough, but there is no one way to make curry. Curry simply means a spice mixture. There’s Indian curry, Thai curry, Jamaican curry, red curry, green curry, coconut curry. Since my hankering was for red lentils, I decided to lean more towards the Indian curries but the long list of spices is what had always intimidated me. Since no two curry recipes that I found were the same, I realized that there is no one right way to make a curry and I could make my own version tweaking the ingredients how I wanted. That took off some of the pressure.

Next step was to get quality ingredients. There were not going to be supermarket spices in this mix. I headed to Bazaar Spices in the new Atlantic Plumbing Building in Shaw. They’re also in Union Market in NE. The staff was extremely helpful and they had everything I needed and even mixed me up some of the ingredients for me in smaller sizes than those displayed in the shop. I ended up finding my coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, paprika, cayenne, garam masala and some beautiful red lentils. They even had tomato paste powder that I could reconstitute for the red curry paste, so I didn’t need to make another trip to the grocery store.

The rich, beautiful colors of all the spices I needed for my curry.

The recipe that I was using for Curried Coconut Lentils┬ácalled for both curry powder and red curry paste so I decided I was going to make both. I realized that I didn’t have the dried chiles or whole peppercorns that were called for in the paste or the whole mustard seeds for the curry. But I did have mustard powder and ground pepper and I was gonna take a bet that I could omit the chiles and it would still be pretty good. And I was right! What this also made me realize is that – A) I will never be able to make the same curry twice cause I’ll be pinching a bit of this and a bit of that, B) this will be an ongoing process of exploration and experimentation to see how different spices and ingredients impact the overall flavor of the curry, and C) I may never be able to go back to store-bought curry.

The finished curry powder and paste all ready to go.

Once the curry powder and paste were prepared, I was ready for the easy part. My only complaint was that the curry paste did not get as red as I would have liked b/c of the dried tomato that I used. But the taste was phenomenal. So, I sauteed some minced garlic, ginger, onions, carrots and celery with the red lentils and then added the curries and coconut milk and let all the flavors dance together in a slow simmer. Some cilantro as garnish and a mini naan and voila, definitely the best curried lentils I’ve ever made and the closest I’ve ever come to replicating the amazing Indian food I’ve tried in restaurants throughout DC. I would never claim that after one try, I’ve figured out how to make better curry than some of the master chefs around here, but I’m off to a good start. I’ll continue to fuel my curry addiction by perfecting my ideal spice blend.

The finished product! I like lots of cilantro…

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Declaration and the Shaw Revolution

It was the first warm, sunny day in weeks when my good friend Haleh and I ventured on over to Shaw to try Declaration. There are so many fun, new eateries and bars popping up in the neighborhood that it’s hard to keep up. Declaration is quintessentially Washington with its Declaration of Independence theme and we’d heard good things about the food so we decided to give it a try. We were also seriously craving some great wood fired pizza so our expectations were high.

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The Declaration of Independence themed eatery.

 

Declaration is just across the street from another one of my favorite new additions in Shaw, Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. The theater boasts a great selection of independent and critically acclaimed films, a beautiful bar and lounge and fun movie snacks. The Landmark theaters provide my favorite kind of movie experience. In fact, I’ve filed it away that dinner at Declaration and a movie at the Atlantic Plumbing Cinema would make for a great evening out.

We ordered our drinks promptly upon being seated. I was in a beer mood and knew that there would be many local brews on tap. DC Brau, Atlas Brew Works and Right Proper were all featured. I tried the Atlas Home Rule IPA for the first time and it was perfectly hoppy, not too bitter, with just the right amount of citrus. We ordered two starters, the Roasted Octopus with chorizo white beans, apricot preserves and salsa verde and a small plate of the Brisket Sausage Ragu made with house made lasagna pasta, basil ricotta and pomodoro sauce.

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Roasted Octopus appetizer

 

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Brisket Sausage Ragu

Both dishes were excellent. Octopus is one of my favorites, especially when roasted or grilled. This may have been a little too charred for some, but I love “almost” burned things. So much so that I buy special dark pretzels and prefer my pizza crusts blistery and brown. (I was excited that the menu here made a point of saying that their pizzas are cooked well done and may have a darker crust. Yay!) The octopus was incredibly tender and delicious with the smoky roasted flavor. I was worried about the apricot but it wasn’t overly sweet and blended wonderfully with the slight sweetness of both the octopus and the beans and was balanced by the saltiness of the chorizo. The combination of smoky and sweet was killer. The brisket ragu was as rich and velvety as it should be. The delicious flavor of the brisket really stood out and the sauce was so good that we ordered bread to sop up what was left on the plate.

Next up was the pizza. There are thirteen pizzas here inspired by the original thirteen colonies. Some feature pretty non-traditional pizza toppings like the lobster roll theme on the Massachusetts pie, the fried chicken and bread and butter pickles on the Georgia or the braised pork, dijon and smoked pears on the North Carolina. We went for the good old Virginian which featured ham, arugula, olive oil, lemon, roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

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The Virginia Thomas Jefferson Pie

I was obviously happy with the charred crust and I’m a huge fan of arugula on pizza. Overall, it was a great pizza, but the ham did have a strong briny taste. It was slightly overpowering the way that I feel prosciutto can sometimes be. And the crust at the center was really thin so the ingredients slid off when I picked up a piece, necessitating the use of a knife and fork. There’s a big wood fired pizza game in this city these days (Menomale in Brookland is still my number one) but this pie definitely held its own among the competition. I can’t wait to go back to try another less traditional pie and see if some unique ingredients help to make the pizza at Declaration stand out from its competitors even more.

With our bellies satisfied, we strolled around the neighborhood enjoying an absolutely perfect sunset. Shaw seems to be the land of the rooftop bars and my friend pointed out a new addition to the club, Takoda Restaurant and Beer Garden. From the street, the rooftop bar looked perfectly positioned for some prime views, so we headed up to see for ourselves.

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Enjoying a Dortmunder Gold Lager while taking in a perfect sunset along Florida Avenue.

The west facing roof top bar was full of removable windows and it was open and breezy and the perfect venue for worshiping the return of the sun. It was, not surprisingly, buzzing with people like us taking in the gorgeous weather. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end another memorable evening in Shaw.

 

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Filling the Belly with Goodness at Donburi

It was a bit of a rainy, dreary afternoon when my friend and I found ourselves looking for a quick but tasty lunch in Adams Morgan after an appointment. Having lived in DC for so long, we’ve spent a lot of time hanging out on 18th Street and patronizing the various bars and eateries. We both wanted to try something new and my friend deferred to me since I’m the foodie. We were inspired to go small and local after admiring the mural below and you can’t get much smaller or more local than a tiny restaurant originally launched as a food truck. Since I still hadn’t been to the 18th Street location of Donburi, we agreed to give it a go.

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Small Business Saturday Mural in Adams Morgan by Aniekan Udofia.

The space is essentially a galley kitchen with one long counter, which feels intimate and welcoming, at least on a day like this one when it wasn’t packed with people. We ordered our food at the front and took a seat at the counter to watch it being prepared. It’s impossible to hide the freshness and quality of the food when you’re prepping and plating in front of all the nosy patrons watching for their dish. It’s a cozy spot with low lighting and good music contributing to the ambiance. The counter is filled with plenty of condiments – extra Donburi sauce, utensils, tea, water – so you have everything you’ll need.

I decided on the Shiitakedon bowl as I’m a mushroom lover. The menu says a half cooked egg on top but with the scallion it seemed a little like an egg scallion pancake which was fine by me. It was soft and delicious, oozing over the mushrooms. The briny pickles were a great compliment to cut the overall richness of the dish. This is a lot of food! I left super stuffed but that might be because of the side order of Karaagedon or fried chicken. I’ve been on a bit of a Korean fried chicken kick lately and just couldn’t resist some Japanese fried chicken. And it was worth it.

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Left to Right: Karaagadon (fried chicken) with Japanese Curry, Side order of Karaagadon, Shiitakedon (mushroom rice bowl with egg)

My friend also got the fried chicken bowl but with the Japanese Curry Sauce. She loved it but the curry sauce wasn’t completely my cup of tea. It just wasn’t the kind of curry that I seek out. It tasted like the powdered curry we find in the spice aisle of American supermarkets, the only kind of curry I knew during my childhood. I was hoping for something a little more unexpected. But overall, it was a delicious lunch. Next time, I want to try the Gyudon or beef brisket and the panko covered shrimp which we were drooling over as we watched them being prepared in the kitchen. I expect to leave just as stuffed and happy as I was today.