The other night I found myself sitting at my computer thinking about ghee. Several years ago I had a habit of regularly making it, and I’d use it in all manner of curries and sautés—it was fun to keep on hand, and it would last for forever. It’d been a while since I’d made a batch. As I was sitting there, I had the realization that ghee is nothing more than—get this—strained browned butter. It’s not that I ever thought ghee was a complicated thing to wrap your head around—surely others have conceptualized it this way before. But in any case, it was revelation enough that it catapulted me into the kitchen.
To make ghee, melt a stick—or two or three or fifteen—of butter over medium heat in a saucepan or small skillet that’s not black (it’ll be hard to gauge the ghee’s color if you use a dark pan, such as a cast-iron skillet). As it cooks, sizzling away as the water evaporates, the solids will separate, clinging to the sides and dropping to the bottom of the pan, and they’ll begin to take on color. You’ll want to watch closely, because once the solids start to color, they can go from blond to black in a matter of seconds. Look for them to turn reddish-brown—which is when you have browned butter! Remove the pan from the heat and immediately, carefully pour the butter through a cheesecloth-lined sieve to strain out the solids. (The purpose of separating the solids is to allow the ghee to have a high smoke point.) Once it cools, you can keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several weeks.
I first used my ghee in this curry, one that I could have made in February because unfortunately that’s the state of the farmer’s market. What I’m getting there lately is sprouts, a bunch of scallions, lettuce . . . Most of which I’m eating out of hand or as sparse little garnishes. Spring vegetables just aren’t yet offering enough to plump out a whole meal. So I’m still stocked up on sweet potatoes, kale, cans of tomatoes—the usual items that I always keep on hand.
Spicing, as you probably know, can be an elaborate matter when it comes to Indian curries. I don’t often wing a curry as I did this one—I turn to one of Chitra’s recipes, or Madhur Jaffrey’s for inspiration, where the colorful spread of dried spices have been meticulously figured out already. In this curry, the bulk of the flavor comes from a paste of ginger, garlic, and chilies that I learned to make in an Indian cookery class I took several years ago, and the dry spicing is relatively sparse—cumin, coriander, and garam masala. It may not be entirely authentic, but it was rich, spicy, and filling, and a perfect foil to my ghee.
Sweet Potato and Kale Curry
3 tablespoons ghee, clarified butter, or peanut oil
1-1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium white onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 small hot chili, seeded if you like, minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 sweet potato (1 pound), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
One 28-ounce can or two 14.5-ounce cans whole tomatoes
2 teaspoons brown sugar
4 cups shredded kale or other hearty greens
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus additional for garnish
Cooked white rice
1. Heat the ghee in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. To test the temperature, add one or two cumin seeds. They should sizzle immediately. Add the cumin, swirling for a few seconds, then the onion and the coriander and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the onions begin to caramelize.
2. Meanwhile, mince the garlic, ginger, and pepper together on a cutting board. Sprinkle the salt over it and continue mincing until it becomes a paste.
3. Add the garlic-ginger-chili paste to the onion and cook just until fragrant, less than a minute, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Add the sweet potato, tomatoes, brown sugar, and 2/3 cup water. Stir in the kale. Partially cover the pan and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring periodically, until the potatoes are tender. Use a wooden spoon to break up the tomatoes as the curry cooks. You can add another splash of water if the pan dries out too much and the curry appears thick, or turn up the heat slightly to let some of the liquid boil off if it seems too thin. Stir in the garam masala.
4. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cilantro. Serve over rice.