Curry favor with a flavorful Indian meal

Most of us so-called grown-ups are just like the kids. As much as we moan about going back to school, we're pretty much over our free-form summer hours and want to get back to some sort of routine. One of the things we look forward to is seeing friends and family we've missed during the hot months due to varying vacation schedules.

A dinner party is a fun way to catch up. But just because we're getting back to our routines doesn't mean our festive moments have to be the same old same old.

Ergo, our culinary exercise du mois is to fix a dinner for eight that's a bit on the exotic side. We've chosen India as our recipe inspiration this time. The subcontinent is home to lots of fragrant, tasty ingredients that when put together can create a memorable meal, even (or maybe especially) for those who aren't terribly familiar with Indian food. Another thing to keep in mind when getting ready for this dinner is that you don't have to do much traveling to get the ingredients. Most supermarkets stock the majority of the items you'll be using. And Middle Eastern and Asian markets, of which there are virtually dozens in the area, can probably provide the rest.

We've chosen dishes that are relatively familiar. They're relatively easy and some can be made ahead. And if one or two of your friends are as much into cooking as they are into eating, you can "outsource" some of the recipes too.

Sweet lassi

Even though it's sweet, this cooling drink is perfect on a warmish evening.

3 cups well-chilled plain yogurt (we're liking the Greek style)

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1/3 cup pureed berries (raspberry, strawberry, your choice)

2 tablespoons crushed pistachio nuts

Mint sprigs, garnish

In a bowl, whisk together yogurt, sugar, water and pureed fruit. Chill until serving time.

Pour lassi into chilled glasses. Sprinkle on some crushed pistachios. Add a mint sprig. Makes about 8 small cups.

Naan pockets

Naan loaves are available at supermarkets and specialty stores. Some are fresh, some come frozen. If you can get several flavor varieties, go ahead. You can also serve the naan with the curry. If all else fails, use pita bread for the pockets.

Although pork is not a big part of most Indian regional cuisines, we like to use it for this dish. But feel free to substitute beef or lamb. You can cook the meat ahead, then reheat gently just before serving.

Garam masala is a "universal" spice mixture used in myriad Indian dishes. Each family cook usually has her (or his) "secret" formula. You can buy garam masala mix pre-made. Or, use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to grind together 4 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks, 3 whole cloves, 3 black peppercorns, 2 black cardamom pods (husks removed) and 2 teaspoons black cumin seeds.

8 naan loaves, cut in half crosswise and gently opened in the centers to form pockets

1/3 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro

1 small jalapeno pepper, pith and seeds removed, chopped

2 pounds boneless pork (or beef or lamb), in small cubes

About 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

16 thin red onion rings

4 tomatoes, cut into 6 wedges each

1/2 of a white cabbage, shredded

Combine yogurt, garam masala, chili powder, salt, lemon juice, cilantro, jalapeno and oil and pour over meat cubes. Stir well and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.

Heat broiler. Put meat mixture in a broiler-proof pan (a baking sheet works fine) and broil about 10 inches from heat source, turning several times, until meat is tender and cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Remove meat to a serving platter. Arrange bowls of onion rings, tomato wedges and cabbage nearby. Heat naan pockets gently in the microwave. Allow guests to stuff themselves.

Chicken curry

India is famous for a wide variety of curry dishes (so is Thailand, but we'll address that another time). This Indian curry is, arguably, a bit hearty for mid-September, but we like it because it includes potatoes and squash, making it filling and fairly well balanced.

You can serve this with steamed basmati rice if you like. Or just pass some more of that wonderful naan bread.

Have a dry white wine or beer.

If you're wary of culinary "heat," use a little at a time, taste, and add more as you go.

This can definitely be made ahead. The flavors are even better next day.

Curry leaves will remind you of bay leaves, but they are not at all the same.

But first: For the spiced green beans: Use about 1/4 cup vegetable oil; 1 large onion, halved and in thin slices; 2 small jalapeno peppers, seeded, pith removed, in thin, lengthwise slices; 18 to 24 curry leaves; 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper; 1/4 teaspoon turmeric; 2 pounds green beans, trimmed, in 2-inch lengths.

Heat oil in a large, deep, non-stick skillet. Add onions and chilies and cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add curry leaves, pepper and turmeric. Reduce heat to medium, add green beans and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until green beans are just crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Taste for seasonings and adjust.

3 tablespoons ground coriander (dried cilantro)

1 1/2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons chili powder (preferably from pasilla chilies)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/3 cup water

About 1/4 cup vegetable oil

6 onions (3 yellow and 3 vidalia) halved and thinly sliced

16 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 (1-inch) pieces fresh gingerroot, peeled and thinly sliced

24 curry leaves (Eastern market)

4 teaspoons garam masala

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 (3 1/2-pound) chickens, each cut into eight pieces (wing tips discarded)

Coarse sea salt, optional

2 large baking potatoes, scrubbed, cut into 1-inch dice

About 1 1/4 pounds store-bought, pre-cut butternut squash, cut into half-inch dice

2 (14-ounce) cans unsweetened coconut milk

2 cups reduced-fat/sodium chicken broth

Fresh cilantro leaves, garnish, optional

In a small skillet, over medium heat, "toast" the coriander, chili powder and turmeric, stirring until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in water to form a paste.

In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium high, heat vegetable oil. Add onions, garlic, ginger and curry leaves and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the spice paste, garam masala and black pepper. Reduce heat to medium.

Lightly season chicken pieces with salt (if desired). Add chicken, potatoes and squash to skillet and stir to coat with seasonings. Stir in coconut milk and chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Reduced heat to medium-low, cover and cook until chicken is cooked through and potatoes and squash are tender, about 25 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to remove chicken pieces to a large, deep, heated platter. Taste sauce for seasonings. Adjust to your liking. Pour sauce over chicken. Serve with basmati rice, if desired.

Coconut pudding

Add some American-style shortbread cookies as a side for this dessert if you're looking for a bit of crunch. Serve some chai-style tea (hot or iced) to wash it down. Or offer a chilled asti-style (bubbly) dessert wine.

3 cups fresh pineapple, in half-inch pieces

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

1/3 cup water

1 1/2 cans (14 ounce) sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)

1 1/2 cans (14 ounce) unsweetened coconut milk

5 teaspoons, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice, divided

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large egg whites

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

3/4 cup cashew pieces, toasted (can be salted)

Fresh mint sprigs, garnish

For the pineapple, in a medium skillet, over medium heat, cook pineapple with granulated sugar, stirring, until sugar is dissolved and pineapple is tender. Transfer to a 9-inch baking dish.

For gelatin mixture, in a small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over the water and let stand until softened, about 6 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk, the 5 teaspoons lime juice and vanilla.

Warm gelatin over medium heat, stirring with a stainless steel spoon until dissolved. Pour gelatin into coconut milk mixture and stir gently until well blended.

For the pudding, in a stainless bowl, beat egg whites to firm peaks. Fold into coconut milk-gelatin mixture, then pour over pineapple mixture in 9-inch dish. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours to set.

To finish and serve, in a small skillet, over medium heat, combine brown sugar with remaining lime juice and cook until sugar is just melted. Add cashews, stir well to coat, then transfer to a shallow bowl to harden.

When ready to serve, spoon pudding into 8 small, individual dessert bowls. Sprinkle with cashews. Garnish with mint.

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