The essence of a vindaloo is that it is both hot and sour.
The heat is not just a matter of extra chilli - it has a strong element of mustard and black pepper as well.
Typically the sourness comes from vinegar, and/or from tamarind, though occasionally amchur - dried green mango powder - is used or lemon or lime. My preference is for a lemon or lime plus amchur combination.
As I hunted around for recipes to compare, several more things became clear to me.
More than just about any other Indian dish, these recipes specify that you start with the whole seeds of the spices used and grind them freshly, whether you use a traditional mortar and pestle, or bung them into an electric coffee grinder. The flavour is intended to arrive in your mouth at full speed ahead.
Secondly, though not universally so, the meat needs time to soak up the flavours, not just carry them as a surface veneer. It's one particular curry which benefits from being made the day before you eat it.
Onions also feature strongly. They must be cooked until they begin to brown. Transparent is not enough. Burned is too much.
So here goes. It wouldn't be me if I didn't throw a few of my personal biases into the method: I use ghee, because I like what it does for a spice dish that oil doesn't. I use a deep casserole dish of my own making, because I like what that does to meat. Alternatively I use a cast-iron, covered pot that can double as ovenware or saucepan.
You will need
750g - 1kg beef (gravy beef, blade or chuck) cubed about 2.5cm.
2 teaspoons whole Cumin Seeds
Chilli Powder to taste
1 teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 teaspoon Cardamom Seeds, black or green
5cm of cinnamon stick, or some pieces of Cassia Bark
1 teaspoon Black Mustard Seeds
1 teaspoon Powdered Fenugreek
75 ml white vinegar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
a little wine, perhaps some mashed kiwifruit or tamarillo flesh.
300g Chopped Onion
1 tablespoon of grated ginger root
3 teaspoons of ground coriander
6 chopped cloves of garlic
1 heaped teaspoon of turmeric
On the first occasion I did this, I found the vinegar to be still there in its own right at the end of the cooking. I felt it was a bit dominant, though Miranda found it OK. By the next day, the vinegar flavour was more thoroughly blended.
The next occasion I cooked a vindaloo, I used mince (ground beef), and I decided to substitute the same amount of lemon juice for the vinegar, to try and get the sourness without being able to identify it as vinegar or whatever. In addition, I used a rounded teaspoon of amchur. This time, it was the amchur which dominated, giving a slightly raw and harsh sourness which was more appealing than the vinegar, though still a touch dominant. On further experiment, about half a teaspoon of amchur appears to be about right.]
Remember when using mince (ground beef) that, unless you do it yourself, it is inclined to be fattier than chuck steak or blade steak. Animal fat does not contribute positively, as ghee does, to the final taste and thickness of the dish, and adding ghee simply compounds the fattiness. It is worth, if you can, getting a leaner mince for curries.
Amchur is powdered dried green mango. It is available from specialist Indian groceries - around Auckland at any rate. Don't buy too much at once as it can absorb moisture and become lumpy over time.
Several kinds of subtropical fruit contain enzymes that break down meat fibre. These include kiwifruit, tamarillos, feijoas. If you've eaten a bunch of these you can often feel their effect on your lips. If meat is marinated with a couple of any of the above, sliced or mashed, for several hours it will be noticeably more tender when it is cooked. (Conversely, salt and tomatoes will tend to toughen meat, and mostly are better added towards the end of cooking.)
We are currently using up a freezerful of somewhat tougher than usual beef - buying by the quarter or half-beast is like that sometimes - so the time in the marinade is useful. Place in the fridge for a couple of hours, or even better, pop it in after breakfast for the evening meal, and come back later for the rest of the preparation. If you have good chuck or blade steak, this is unnecessary. Topside can be a little on the dry side and will benefit from a little marinading.