You could say I’ve always had a passion for old cookbooks. One of my favorite childhood volumes was a technicolor tome thick as a telephone book with the cover ripped off, so I’ve no idea what it was called. My mother seemed to use it exclusively for a carrot cake recipe, but I could easily spend hours leafing through its thin, glossy pages, and often did.
I went through a long Food Network phase, then switched to magazines and finally, Pinterest and blogs. About a year ago, when attending a wedding upstate, my husband and I rented a room at The Horned Dorset Inn in Leonardsville, NY. We stayed in the Utopia Library, and were shocked nad delighted to discover that it was not just a room with some books, but a WHOLE ENTIRE ACTUAL LIBRARY with a kitchenette on the main level and an apartment on top. The kitchen, I found, was filled entirely with old books on cooking and homemaking. We stayed up all night reading, and I rediscovered my obsession with ink-and-paper cookbooks.
When I first started spending serious time at my father-in-law’s farm in upstate New York, where for a long time there was no internet to speak of, I discovered that he has an extensive cookbook collection. Now, my favorite thing to do when we arrive is brew a pot of schisandra berry tea, pick a couple of volumes off the shelves in the kitchen bookcase, and choose something to cook. Now that it’s colder, I prefer to enjoy The Great Indoors while my husband works in the garage or the woodshed, so I try to choose something that requires my presence at or near the stove for several hours. Farm chores are great in warmer weather, but I am not particularly frost-hardy.
On our way upstate, we grabbed an onion, a bottle of cooking sherry, and some beef chuck from the grocery store in Brooklyn. That would be the basis for our meal. After a quick inspection I found a book called A World of Curry, published in 1968 by an American housewife who’d spent some time in “The Orient.”
Between the collection that lives up at the farm and my own personal collection, I have access to a lot of old cookbooks. They’re some of the most direct links to the interior lives of women, especially in the late 30s, 40s, and 50s, that I’ve come across. It makes sense. Imagine the collective energy of the entire female-bodied workforce being poured into literature about homemaking. The wellness brands and blogs of today, the magazines and talk TV of the 90s, rolled into a single genre.
There are ten or fifteen recipes for beef curry in A World of Curry, and they’re all pretty close to identical. Curry is one of those things that, like perfect bread, it’s better to feel. The recipe below for “French Beef Curry” is somewhere in-between your most basic curry recipe, which entails frying alliums with a mixture of whole and ground spices before simmering whatever you’re curry-ing in a liquid built from that base, and your most basic French beef stew recipe, which entails frying alliums with fewer spices and simmering cubes of beef in a wine-enriched broth.
I consider most stew recipes to be a set of loose guidelines at best, and this is no exception. Stew is highly personal (thickness, spice level, etc) and hard to mess up. You could swap out most of these ingredients for something similar, and forego the beef altogether for chicken, chickpeas and potatoes (sort of an aloo gobi take on things), or whatever protein strikes your fancy. Below is the recipe directly from A World of Curry. My edits are noted in parenthesis.
French Beef Curry (4 Servings)
- 2 large onions, diced
- 4 Tbsp butter
- 1 lb. chuck or round steak, cut into small cubes
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 4 cardamom pods
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, freshly ground
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp mild curry paste (I used powder instead)
- 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped (I omitted these entirely)
- 1/4 green pepper, chopped (none of this either, because I hate green peppers)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup of water, more if needed (I replaced this with sherry)
“Fry the onions in the heated butter till they are pale brown; remove onions from pan. Brown the meat in butter remaining in the pan and remove it. Brown the spices and garlic till dark, then return the onions and meat and add all other ingredients. Cover and let simmer over low heat for 2 to 4 hours, or till meat is tender. The gravy should be rich and thick when done.”
One of the things that I love about older cookbooks is that they assume a general basic knowledge of cooking — unlike in many modern recipes, where you get five steps on how to dice an onion. While this approach is undoubtedly instructive for some, I like feeling as though cracking open a cookbook is an invitation to a semi-secret club, where you need to know how to read the code.
A Few Notes on Method
The first thing I did when making this recipe was not slicing or frying onions, but seasoning the meat. I find that a lot of people are shy about seasoning meat, and there’s no reason to be — it’s hard to over-season, but very easy to cook some bland, boring beef chuck. I dry-rubbed the meat with a combination of salt, pepper, curry powder, and ginger, gave it a good massage, and let it sit in a mixing bowl while I did everything else. The result is always tender and flavorful meat.
I took an extra step here and first lightly caramelized the onions, removed them from the pan, then seared the meat in the same pan. Once the meat had a good sear, I de-glazed with sherry and added the onions back in, along with everything else.
I love the S&B Oriental Curry powder for generic curry applications, like this one. It’s also amazing in scrambled eggs. I keep it on hand at all times.
I made a quick batch of Vietnamese-style baguettes with this, since they rise relatively quickly and don’t require much hands-on work, but it would be equally good with rice, potatoes, or any other kind of bread.