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"Greg Got A Slow-Cooker!" Part 3: Lamb Curry with Tomato Cachumber and Cucumber Raita

Posted by Amie / July 19, 2010

Lamb Curry with Tomato Relish and Cucumber RaitaWith a successful first slow-cooker meal under his belt, Greg became a little more ambitious. Lamb is not hard, and just like pork, becomes incredibly tender in a slow-cooker. Someone gave me sage advice once: "Stupider people than you have done it." Thanks, mom. That's how I feel about a slow-cooker. I mean, really, the temperature choices on the thing are "low" and "high." I dare you to make this recipe and mess it up.

Lamb Curry with Basmati RiceYou can also make this recipe with beef, bison, elk, deer or any other wild. Lamb and beef are fattier meats and so automatically will be more tender, but the key is good quality.

Greg was in Edinburgh for a good chunk of the Spring, and when he told me I'd love the curries there I was skeptical. British 'curry' is not what I think of as authentic Indian food. It's dumbed down - maybe spiced down is more politically correct - and usually lacks the flavour and heat of chilies that I crave. Still, not all curry is hot, and with the right blend of spices, the meat can be enhanced, not over-powered (vegan/vegeterian note below *).

Basically I pompously told Greg that I had a better recipe than whatever he was eating at curry houses in Edinburgh. Just by using whole spices instead of pre-ground ones, your lamb will be better too. No need to cross the ocean for this one. In fact the lamb we used was from Quebec, the tomatoes were from the Mile End Farmers' Market (Thursdays 4:30-8:30), the onions were from the Little Burgundy Market (Saturday mornings), and the cucumbers were from the Plateau Market (Sundays 10am-2pm).
Lamb Curry Ingredients
1 tbsp oil (not olive oil because it will burn)
2 lbs cubed lamb or beef (non-vegetarian/vegan note and very non-vegetarian meat notes below: ** and ***). Atwater is a great place to get affordable and less affordable Quebec lamb, but there is also a vendor at the Plateau Farmers' Market on Sundays from 10am-2pm who is wonderful
2 onions, finely chopped (really you can cut them however you like, but they cook faster if they're smaller)
4 cloves of garlic, minced or finely chopped
1 tsp fresh gingerroot, minced or finely chopped
1 or 2 long, thin green or red chilies (I know that's not so descriptive, but just know that these aren't jalapenos or Thai bird's eyes chilies and you'll be fine. Remove the seeds if you don't like heat, but otherwise just remove the stem and slice the chilies in half. You don't need to chop them)
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander (it's best to grind your own cumin and coriander from whole spices in a clean coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or blender, but if you already own the ground spices go ahead and use those)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt (or less if your broth is salty)
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns, crushed a little to crack them open, or ground roughly
4 cardamom pods
4 whole cloves (not ground, unless you absolutely have to use pre-ground cloves - 1/4 tsp)
1/2 cup lamb stock (or beef or vegetable, or water in dire straits. Chicken broth kind of clashes with the meat, and water will be a little bland)
1 bay leaf
1/4 ground almonds****
1/2 cup plain yogurt, optional (soy yogurt is fine. Pinehedge is the best regular yogurt, for reasons that I need a whole other blog to explain, but as long as you don't use fat-free you'll be okay. Yogurts without fat are too bitter for the recipe. Pinehedge is naturally sweet. I have eaten enough probiotic plain yogurt to officially say that Pinehedge is the overall best yogurt available in Quebec*****.

This might look like a lot of spices, but once you have them this is a really easy recipe to make. They'll keep for 6 months to a year in a dry cupboard, and whole spices will last longer than ground. In Indian cooking all the same spices get used again and again, so if you think you may never use cloves again, buy them (they're cheap anyway) and give yourself an excuse to use them again (in pho' - or other Asian - noodle soups, ground with cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg on salmon, with baked apples, or poached pears). Gingerroot can also be kept in the freezer and easily peeled with a spoon, so it's definitely not a waste.

Slow-cooking is an awkward thing to do with friends. It requires both a cooking part early in the day and then an eating part hours later. If you don't live together this can get complicated. It can also get very, very hot in your house, so choose your lamb-cooking day carefully. The smell of slow-cooking lamb, however, is up there with barbecue, so it's not like you'll be unhappy unless you're vegetarian and the smell makes you sick. Be respectful of your roommates.

Greg was a real sport and came to my house in the early afternoon (since his slow-cooker and sub-let-ed apartment were unavailable) to prepare the lamb. The important thing is to chop everything in advance and have it measured and ready to go. All the ingredients from the salt to the cloves get added at the same time, so you put them in a bowl together to wait. Measuring things out while something is cooking is a good way to over-cook spices and meat. So Greg and I chopped and measured. You don't need to wash the meat cubes, but it's a good idea to dry them with paper towels if there's some blood dripping. Wash your hands before and after, as well as any counter-space and cutting board the meat touches.

Finally some cooking! We heated the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it was sizzling hot (we tested it by sprinkling it with a few drops of water), Greg added the lamb cubes. He let them brown on one side for 3 minutes or so, and then turned them, browning them on each side for a few minutes, until all the edges were seared. If you cut your own meat, make sure you cut all the pieces about the same size so some don't cook through too quickly and then dry out in the slow-cooker. If they don't end up exactly "cube-shaped" that's okay as long as all the sides get browned. The browning locks in the moisture better in the slow-cooker, and helps the cubes stay together instead of shredding apart (ideal in pulled pork, but not great in lamb curry).
Browning the LambGreg transferred the meat to the slow cooker, and I drained a little of the fat from the skillet. Then I reduced the heat to medium and added the onions to the tablespoon of fat that remained. There will be enough fat in this curry after cooking, so draining here is a very good idea. You need a little so the onions don't stick, but you can add a tablespoon of water to the skillet if you drained too much. Don't drain the fat into the sink since it will solidify and clog the pipes. Drain into a glass or heat-proof container and discard or use later to sauté or roast something, like potatoes, eggs, or onions at the start of a soup or stir-fry. Make sure you wipe the skillet with some paper towel if some fat drips down the side. You don't want to start a grease fire when you set it back on the heat.
Lamb Curry
When the onions were soft (about 7 minutes) we added the garlic, ginger, chili pepper, cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt, peppercorns, cardamom and cloves, and stirred and cooked for about a minute. You want to coat the onions, but you don't want to burn the spices.
Slow-Cooker Lamb Curry
Then we added the lamb broth and the bay leaf, brought the skillet to a boil, and poured the whole thing over the lamb in the slow-cooker. Greg stirred it all together, and then I put the lid on and turned the slow-cooker to high for 4 hours. You can also cook it on low for 8 hours (don't remove the lid until the end, or you'll need to add an extra 30 minutes of cooking time). If you're pressed for time in the morning or afternoon when you make this, you can even prepare the recipe the night before up until the point where the onions are softened, then cool, cover, and refrigerate overnight. In the morning reheat the onions in the pan, add the spices when hot, and continue with the recipe. Go to work, and when you come home all you do is add the almonds for 10 minutes and make rice and any side dishes you want (below). For this to work you'll need a slow-cooker that automatically goes to the "keep warm" setting when the cooking time is done.

Before Greg left for the afternoon I showed him how to make perfect basmati rice. I've messed this up a lot, but once you make friends with the dials on your stove and figure out what temperature you need, you'll make it perfectly every time. Of course if you have a rice-cooker, you're laughing. Either way, wash the rice 5 times in cold water in a medium saucepan or your rice-cooking pot of choice. Drain it each time and don't let any grains fall out. I use a sieve to catch any suicidal rice grains (the ones that think they can survive the jump from the bowl into my sink). You want to move the grains around gently in the bowl with the water each time with your hands to remove the polish. By the fifth time the rice should be relatively unclouded (some rice doesn't have a lot of polish applied, so you may not need to wash it as much. That doesn't mean it's better). Then fill the bowl again with cold water and let it soak for 30 minutes, or until 30 minutes before dinner time (this keeps the grains separate when they cook up).

When you're finally ready to coo the rice (Greg's return), drain the rice again, add the appropriate amount of water (less than you'd expect since the rice has some water in it from the soaking - 1 3/4 cups of water for 1 cup of rice), and bring the pot to a boil. Or just turn the rice-cooker "on"....When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to VERY low, pretty much as low as your stove will go and still be "on", cover the pot, and cook for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, fluff the rice with a fork (Greg did some fine fluffing), then put it back on the low, low heat for another 5-10 minutes. Then take it off the heat and leave it covered until you need it. The first time I did this I didn't think the rice would cook at such a low temperature and I ended up burning the bottom layer of rice. It's easier to cook the rice longer if the heat isn't high enough than to try to salvage it if too much water evaporates. You will end up with gelatinous mush if you try to add more liquid late in the cooking period.

Greg made perfect rice. Nothing burned.

Once the rice was simmering it was almost time to add the ground almonds to the lamb. All that we needed to do was stir them in. My blender got a bit of a grinding workout that day, but everything it ground was dry, so the clean-up was easy, and I didn't even need to wipe it out between uses.
Lamb Curry
Then the slow-cooker went back on HIGH for 10 minutes. The curry looked so luscious and thick. The almonds had turned it from a thin sauce into a thick gravy. Where North America would usually use cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken, Indians use ground nuts that also add flavour. After 10 minutes you can stir in the yogurt, or serve the lamb on top of, or next to, the rice, and mix in a teaspoon of yogurt on your own plate. The pools of grease I expected from the fat from the lamb weren't even that bad, since the cubes had been decently trimmed and I'd skimmed the broth when I made it. This was not all-you-can-eat Indian buffet curry. It was so much better. This was also not low-fat, but fat is flavour, and this was delicious. Oh, if you use a commercial broth, find one low in sodium and make sure you can pronounce all the ingredients. Yeast and monosodium glutamate also have no place in broth. If there's a lot of sodium in your broth you may want to reduce the salt you add in the recipe, or leave the added teaspoon out altogether.

Of course, you can't just make lamb and rice for a real Indian meal. You need a vegetable or tomato salad and maybe some yogurt (maybe not if you added yogurt to the protein or it's not that spicy) or a dal. So while Greg was out I made a cucumber raita with a whole lot more cucumbers than called-for and a tomato cachumber (diced salsa/salad) to round out the meal. I decided to leave out the onions since raw onions spoil my life. I hate 2-day onion taste on my own breath and no amount of brushing seems to get rid of it.

A quick tomato salad (the cachumber) is made from chopping a few tomatoes however you want, sprinkling them with lemon juice, salt, cayenne, and parsley or cilantro.

To make the cucumber yogurt dish quickly, grate 1 big cucumber or a few smaller ones (skin is fine) into a bowl, get the clumps out of 2 cups of thick, plain yogurt (not fat-free. The salad is pretty versatile and forgiving as long as you use good yogurt. See the yogurt note in the ingredient list above, or just trust me and buy 2% or 3.8% Pinehedge. You can also roast a bunch of cumin seeds, grind them and use half for this recipe and half for the tomato dish) with a fork, and add exactly the same ingredients as the tomatoes except the lemon juice (a little salt, a little cayenne, and a little parsley, or cilantro). You can also use mint instead of the other herbs, and feel free to add a little black pepper. Walnuts, toasted, are also really nice for crunch, but you already have the almonds in the lamb curry, so no need to go overboard. These side dishes should be simple since the lamb already has so many flavours. They should also be quick to make since you don't want to be a kitchen slave all day. The whole point of a slow-cooker is to take the stress out of cooking.

So how was it? Amazing. The lamb...there isn't even a lot of salt in this recipe but the result was perfectly salty, the meat was perfectly tender, not falling to pieces, but just chewy enough to release flavour in each bite, and the flavour was rich. There is absolutely nothing in the world like whole spices cooked on low heat for hours in a rich, meat-based sauce. Nothing. Cloves, cardamom, black peppercorns...then the sweet and fresh. There are no words for the joy this meal brought me. I think the sounds I made were, in fact, not words. I was officially out of the dinner conversation. Good thing Greg had another dinner guest with whom to talk.

If you don't have a slow-cooker, you will want one to make this recipe. It is garage sale season as my friend said to each customer, and potential customer, all day yesterday on the sidewalk in front of her own apartment: "Vente de Garage!" Buy a slow-cooker, aka crockpot, and make delicious food.

*You can make this with T.V.P. (textured vegetable protein) but the slow-cooking is completely unnecessary. Use a pot on the stove instead and use more broth (vegetable instead of lamb, obviously). Beans would be an okay substitute, and work really well in a slow-cooker, but you'd need to tinker with the recipe to adjust the spices and amount of liquid since you should ideally use soaked beans instead of canned. For more on soaking and cooking dried beans, see my bean salad recipe post

**You can usually buy the meat pre-cubed from a good butcher, but you can also buy a cheaper cut of lamb (not the leg...) and cut your own. This takes a good bit of time, and if you're not going to use the bone to make lamb stock, I'd say it's a waste of time. The price between a bone-in and a de-boned piece of lamb is minimal. The BEST thing to do is buy cubes and ask the friendly butcher for some lamb bones to make stock. They often just throw them out anyway, so you can sometimes get them for free. Try smiling and being a nice person. Sometimes I'm successful at this and sometimes I'm less so...

***I bought the meat from Atwater market from a butcher who gave me the 2lbs of cubed Quebec lamb meat I wanted (it wasn't specifically "organic", but I couldn't afford the $40 price tag on the organic place behind me with Kamouraska lamb. The place I went was across from the Fromagerie Hamel and the butcher only charged me $25 (6 servings of lamb curry for $25 is definitely not bad). He also gave me a big bag of bones for free to make broth. THAT is why this recipe was amazing. I believe I am more charming when my French fails me and I flail around searching for the right words, such as "J'aimerais aussi avoir les os pour faire un bouillion, mais je préfererais de ne pas désosser l'agneau moi-meme." I think that's wrong somehow...but somewhere in my thesaurus (my personal thesaurus in my head) I couldn't quite figure out how to say that I wanted bones and meat, but not together, but I wanted cubes, not shoulder, not butt, not leg. Who knows what part of the lamb the cubes came from? In hindsight I think it is the butt since it's the cheapest cut I saw, but how to translate that without getting some dirty looks I don't know. The butcher was actually also anglophone, but humoured my attempts to assimilate to French culture, which was very nice of him.

****it's better to buy whole almonds and grind them yourself. The texture is better when they're skinned, so either blanch them to remove the skin or buy them already blanched from a bulk dried fruit and nut store with a high turnover. Often commercial nuts are blanched with chemicals, word to the wise, so blanching your own is a more time-consuming but chemical-free alternative. Nuts also get bitter when they're not fresh, and almonds should be sweet. I've wrecked meals with bags of nuts from big grocery stores kept in my cupboard too long. Turkish or Middle Eastern stores are generally great, but my favourite bulk place is currently in the Atwater market upstairs by Premiere Moisson. You can also buy fresh almonds at Jean-Talon market right now, I believe at Chez Nino on the South side, west of Au Pain Doré.

*****If you're lactose-intolerant, like me, don't add the yogurt directly to the hot curry. Instead, mix a teaspoon of it into your own serving on your plate. that way the probiotics won't be killed by the heat. It also ensures that if you have leftovers and reheat them later, there won't be any probiotics in the curry itself for the microwave or stove-top to kill either.



slow cooker / July 20, 2010 at 02:00 am
It's sound delicious! I have never seen this kind of nice recipe and i like to know this. I am using slow cooker and as per i know if you make chicken or meat in slow cooker then it is be more tasty and i hope you also know that. Thanks for this nice post.
Amie / July 20, 2010 at 10:12 am
Thanks, Frank. I hope you get to make it soon and it works out well for you!
Greg / July 21, 2010 at 10:41 pm
Wow Amie, you definitely give me too much credit here! You did 95% of the cooking while I sat in the corner blowing my nose. Either way, the food was incredible. Hopefully we can do a dinner with the whole podcast crew next time!
Amie / July 21, 2010 at 10:57 pm
Ooh, that'd be fun. We should get readers to vote on what recipe to try to make. Right now I'm very into making the perfect pho' broth. That could be a good challenge.
Greg / November 13, 2010 at 09:03 pm
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