The Great No-Paste Thai Curry Experiment

As a fan of most varieties of curry, those belonging to the oeuvre of Thai cuisine certainly have not escaped my culinary notice. The light and tangy flavors of citrus, coconut and cilantro make Thai curries uniquely delicious. Unfortunately, traditional Thai cooking methods make the cooking of Thai curries uniquely inconvenient.

The endeavor of getting into any kind of curry cookery for the Western hobby chef involves a “collection period” of stocking up on the specific, previously-exotic ingredients commonly involved in curry recipes (I say “previously” because things like turmeric, methi and tamarind are now staples of my spice cabinet). For Indian curries, I have such a vast collection of spices and seasonings on hand, now, that I can simply go down a list of recipe ingredients and toss in what I need as easily as I toss basil, oregano and parsley into a marinara sauce.

The problem with Thai curries is that most recipes rely on a tradition of curry paste making. The result is that, in nearly all Thai recipe books I have found, it becomes necessary first to make a quantity of a particular Thai curry paste, only a portion of which will be used in the recipe. This strategy certainly seems like a good idea for those chefs who make Thai curries with any sort of frequency, but for a hobby chef who wants to experiment with different curries (thus requiring different pastes), the workload of making all the pastes ahead of time leads to my easily talking myself out of making Thai curries.

Massaman CurryAuthentic cooking methods are all well and good for people who prize them and relish in the process, but if a particular cooking method becomes a roadblock for a busy professional, I’m all in favor of eschewing authenticity for convenience. In other words, if the trouble of sticking to authenticity is going to prevent you from making it at all, what’s the point? However, when approaching Thai curry, I didn’t want to eschew authenticity so far as to use store-bought pastes. I have no problem collecting the ingredients, I just wanted to use recipes for Thai curry with the same ease as I use recipes for Indian curry: go down a list of ingredients and toss them in.

And so, I resolved that I would take my favorite Thai cookbook and resolve the paste and curry recipes into one. After all, many of the ingredients were in both the paste and the curry, why couldn’t I just add them in one by one?

I enlisted Sabrina to come over and help as both my chronicler and my sounding board as I went down the list of ingredients for each curry and its corresponding paste in effort to make each curry without the extra step of formulating the paste ahead of time. Sabrina, being more of a traditionalist in terms of cookery, was dubious about my efforts, but game to come along for the ride.

It should also be noted that I also make a few specific ingredient substitutions in the interest of convenience and freshness. Keeping kaffir lime leaves and fresh lemongrass on hand is not the easiest (or cheapest) thing for a Western city girl to do, so I prefer to substitute lime and lemon zest to create a fresh flavor, rather than resorting to dried versions of the original ingredients.

The first recipe we tackled was for Massaman curry, which we decided would contain chicken only. Sabrina found the end result to be a bit too lemon-y, but I didn’t think one way or other about the lemon flavor, so I’m including a range for the lemon zest; I zested 1/2 a lemon, but feel free to use any smaller amount. In general, the particular ingredient amounts were decided upon off-the-cuff, so using a little more or a little less to taste is certainly within the reasonable realm of creative freedom.

SARAH’S NO-PASTE MASSAMAN CURRY

1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
2 dried red chilis, pulverized with a mortar and pestle
zest of 1/4 to 1/2 of a lemon peel, shredded finely (invest in an OXO Zester, and you won’t regret it)
1/2 teaspoon ground galangal (can’t find it at the store? Try Penzey’s)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 cardamom seeds, pulverized with a mortar and pestle
pinch of nutmeg or mace
several dashes of fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (I use Tamicon)
1 (13-15 oz) can of coconut milk
beef, chicken, other meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein
peanuts

Saute onion, garlic and ginger in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Powder the red chilis and the cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle (or substitute already powdered versions of each). Add the chilis, lemon zest, galangal, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg to the saucepan. Sprinkle in the fish sauce. Add the brown sugar and tamarind paste. Pour in the coconut milk. At this point, you have your curry sauce and meat can be added. If using meat, simmer covered for a few hours until meat reaches desired tenderness. If adding vegetables, cook them to desired tenderness in the sauce. Add peanuts right before serving.

A few of my guests did note the fact that traditional Massaman curry usually includes potatoes. I generally avoid potatoes in recipes because of the unabashed carbohydrate content they add. Cubed potatoes could, however, easily be added to this Massaman curry. One would simply need to contribute additional liquid (water or broth) to the curry as the potatoes inevitably absorbed the curry sauce during cooking.

Green CurryNext up we decided to try a green curry, which would contain both chicken and vegetables. I treat all of my curry recipes as sauces, which could be used over any meat, protein or vegetable, and so these Thai curries are no exception. As a result, I don’t specify exact amounts of meat or vegetables, and further I don’t specify exact vegetables. Chefs should simply put as much in as seems a logical ratio for the amount of sauce. This choice contains a certain amount of creative freedom, as some people may prefer their curries drier and some may prefer them more saucy. I leave it up to you. Again, this approach might not be the most authentic, but it is an easy and convenient way to cook. I put Sabrina in charge of procuring the meat and the vegetables for this one. She came up with boneless chicken thighs (as she and Ted do not eat beef) and fresh broccoli, bell peppers and carrots. I saved the broccoli for our third, all vegetable curry, but did contribute carrots and bell peppers to the green curry along with about a third of the package of chicken (two thirds went in the massaman curry).

SARAH’S NO-PASTE GREEN CURRY

1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
2 green chilis, diced
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground galangal
zest of 1/2 lemon peel, shredded finely
zest of one lime peel, shredded finely
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
several dashes of fish sauce
1 (13-15 oz) can coconut milk
your choice of meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein

Saute onion, garlic, ginger and chilis in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Add coriander, cumin, galangal, lemon zest, lime zest, cilantro and basil. Stir in brown sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk. At this point, depending on how finely you chopped the fresh herbs and chilis, you may want to process this sauce to a smoother consistency. I am a whole-hearted devotee of the immersion blender, as it will accomplish most such tasks in the kitchen without the necessity of dirtying the food processor bowl in addition to the cooking pot. If, however, you are one of the unfortunate class of Americans who do not own an immersion blender, you can always just transfer your sauce to a food processor. If you prefer to be proactive about it, you can take all the ingredients up to and including the coconut milk, combine them in your food processor, and then heat in the saucepan.

Once sauce is desired smoothness, add the meat, if using. If using a combination of meat and vegetables, like we did, the meat should be added first, cooked until tender, and then vegetables should be added and they can simmer together until the vegetables are done. I prefer curry meat to be so tender it easily falls apart under my fork, so there is no such thing for me as meat that is too well stewed.

The green curry turned out to be the standout favorite of the group; not only did it receive numerous accolades, but it was the only curry pan cleaned out by the end of dinner. A note on the green-ness of green curry. I’m ordinarily all in favor or using the dried versions of herbs and spices for the sake of convenience, but green curry is one of those dishes that absolutely requires fresh green herbs. If you don’t use fresh cilantro and basil, the curry will not turn out green and, I venture to say, will not turn out very tasty at all. The fresh herbs really make this dish; increasing proportions of these herbs to taste is never a bad idea.

Sabrina and I had the first two curries well on their way by the time Ted and Roger arrived for dinner, so we let the boys have a say in our final curry of the night. We had already planned for this one to be an all-vegetable curry (after all, the meat supply was exhausted at this point), but had not decided upon the sauce. In the interest of sticking with basic curry recipes, the success of which we could measure from the experience of having tasted versions of these curries before, I put all the more unusual and specialty Thai curry recipes in the book off limits. Our choices, then, were yellow curry, red curry or panang curry. The scales tipped to panang and we were off and running.

Panang CurryPanang curry is the one type of Thai curry I have made a few times before with good success. Because of this fact, I took the liberty of using my own approach to the recipe. In the past, I have basically treated panang as a red curry with peanut, and so instead of drawing from the peanut-based paste, I based this recipe off of the red curry paste, as well as the recipes for panang and for red curry.

SARAH’S NO-PASTE PANANG CURRY

1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
10 dried red chilis, pulverized in a mortar and pestle
zest of 1/4 lemon peel, shredded finely
zest of one lime peel, shredded finely
1/2 teaspoon galangal
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
several dashes of fish sauce
a few squirts of sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 (13-15 oz) can of coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
your choice of meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein
chopped cilantro, to garnish
peanuts, to garnish

Saute onion, garlic and ginger in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Powder the red chili with a mortar and pestle, or substitute already powdered chilis. Add lemon zest, lime zest, galangal, ground coriander, fish sauce, tamarind paste, coconut milk and peanut butter. Stir over medium fire until well combined.

Add the meat first, if using, and cook to desired tenderness. Add vegetables, if using, and simmer until tender. Garnish with cilantro and peanuts.

The panang curry went over well with all dinner guests. Sabrina mentioned that it was a little peanut-ty for her taste, but acknowledged that such level of peanut flavor was likely not contrary to the nature of the dish, but rather just not to her personal taste. As a result, I built some flexibility into the above recipe; feel free to include less peanut butter for a lighter peanut taste, or more for a thorough peanut taste.

All in all, the No-Paste Thai Curry Experiment was a success; Sabrina expressed congenial surprise that it all turned out so well when the endeavor seemed so free-form at the start. All three curries were much enjoyed with the jasmine rice and Bota Box Chardonnay brought by Sabrina.

One footnote to this curry meal—when everyone arrived and started drinking, we quickly realized that the not-so-imminent readiness of the curries might spell disaster with drinks on an empty stomach. To keep the booze from flooding so quickly to our heads we’d be drunk by dinner, I set out some mango cheese spread and crackers, left over from the holidays. The improvised appetizer was an unintentional hit! This spread doesn’t properly belong to any type of Asian cuisine, but it is curry-inspired, so for the sake of completeness, here it is:

SARAH’S MANGO CHEESE SPREAD

1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese
1/4 cup mango chutney
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup unsalted, blanched nuts (almonds, cashews, etc)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth. Chill at least two hours before serving.

Cilantro Coleslaw for Tacos

While this coleslaw recipe needn’t be exclusively for tacos, I did originally find it as part of a fish taco recipe, and after bringing it to Taco Night at Sabrina’s house, I have proven that it works just as well with Sabrina’s slow-cooked pork carnitas filling as it does with fish. I imagine the same is true of shredded beef or chicken. What’s great about this slaw is that it contains such a variety of traditional Mexican taco flavors, it makes for an easy and complete way to garnish any sort of taco meat, fish or other protein-rich filling. Put it this way… when I add this slaw to a taco, I don’t even need to add cheese. Ingredients below are given in recommended amounts, but proportions for this recipe are hard to mess up, so if you want more of one flavor or another, feel free to exercise your creative freedom.

coleslawSARAH’S CILANTRO SLAW

1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, or 1/4 cup cilantro chutney
2 green onions, snipped or sliced thin
2 green chilis or jalapenos, minced (optional)
juice and zest of one lime
1/3 cup sour cream (or more, if needed to coat; see below)
dusting of ground cumin, or a sprinkling of cumin seeds
one small cabbage, shredded, or one bag (10 to 16oz) or coleslaw mix

Chop up all of the fresh greens (i.e. cilantro, green onions, jalapenos) and put in a small bowl or container. Squeeze lime juice over them. Stir in mayonnaise and cumin. At this point, the dressing mixture can be stored in the refrigerator until closer to serving time. Dressing the slaw closer to eating time keeps it from getting soggy.

Shortly before serving, place dressing in a larger bowl and add coleslaw mixture a bit at a time until slaw is evenly coated and dressing is used up (i.e. no dressing pooling in the bottom of the bowl). If, at this point, you still have a small portion dry slaw, then you can add additional mayo in order to stretch the dressing to cover the remaining slaw. Serve fresh as a side dish, or as a taco filling with meat or fish.

Summer Hummus

As the heat of summer rolls in, I find myself searching for recipes that provide full flavor and hearty enjoyment without the need to be cooked ahead of time or heated up before eating. At the suggestion of one of my co-workers (with whom I often conspire to bring in a Friday snack), I went back to one of my old-favorite, but long-neglected recipes, basic hummus.

TahiniWhy has my hummus recipe been so long-neglected? Well the unfortunate thing about hummus is that while most of the ingredients are cheap and easy to come by, one key ingredient is both expensive and not exactly “garden variety”–sesame tahini. It sounds exotic, but sesame tahini is fundamentally sesame seed butter, i.e. ground and pureed sesame seeds just like peanut butter is ground and pureed peanuts. While most large grocery stores, at least in cities the size of Pittsburgh, will stock tahini, chances are it will be expensive. $6 or $7 dollars for a jar that’s around the same size or smaller than the average peanut butter jar.

In order to make hummus with any degree of regularity, I would have to find some inexpensive tahini. I turned to Amazon, as I do for many shopping dilemmas. From bulk spices to facial moisturizing cream, I have found that many items are, in fact, cheaper to buy in bulk on Amazon than in the store. Some items, of course, are assuredly not cheaper (don’t try to buy hair gel online!), but oftentimes I do find a great deal, and so I thought such might be the case with tahini. I scoured all the tahini offerings for the best deal, and found Al Wadi Tahina for about $14 for two 32 oz jars (i.e. pretty darn big jars; each at least twice the size of an average tahini jar).

Armed with my bulk tahini, I was ready to revisit my old recipe. I’m going to post a version of my recipe that is built around using one can of chickpeas. This recipe makes a nice modest amount, such as a bowlful to serve at a party amongst other hors d’oeuvres. Usually, however, I make double this recipe so I can have a stock that will last several days.

SARAH’S BASIC HUMMUS

1 can (15 oz) of chickpeas
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1-2 teaspoons minced garlic
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sesame tahini
paprika and/or red pepper, to taste
a dash or two of cumin
black pepper, to taste

Drain the chickpeas, but reserve the liquid. The chickpea liquid that the beans are canned with is very important for getting the right consistency without the hummus becoming too bland.

HummuaAssemble the drained chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, tahini and spices in the bowl of a food processor. Add small amounts at a time of the chickpea liquid to help the contents process smoothly. Add only enough to get the hummus to your desired consistency. Adding the whole of the leftover liquid will result in a hummus that is much too runny, so take your time and contribute small bits until you get the consistency you want. Some people like a thicker hummus than others; the choice is yours.

Chill the hummus a couple hours before serving. Serve with warm pitas or corn chips as a dip, or use with bread or tortillas to make a sandwich.

I also like to add Parmesan cheese when I make a hummus/tortilla sandwich. Also, this recipe can be made with an immersion blender, but it requires a bit more effort and perhaps a bit more liquid, so the food processor, if available and convenient, is definitely the recommended form of pureeing the ingredients.

Another great thing about hummus is its versatility. You can make many different flavors without changing in the recipe. Here are some I’ve tried so far:

SUN-DRIED TOMATO HUMMUS: Add sun- or oven-dried tomatoes to the food processor. Add enough to turn the hummus pink-ish in color.

LEMON HUMMUS: Increase the lemony flavor of the hummus without adding more liquid by adding the zest of half a lemon to the food processor

WASABI GINGER HUMMUS: Add a tablespoon (or more to taste) or Wasabi powder and two teaspoons (or more to taste) of ginger powder while mixing.

CILANTRO LIME: Substitute lime juice for lemon juice in the above recipe. Add the zest of half a lime if available. After the hummus is processed to creamy, add a small bunch of fresh cilantro and process the hummus on pulse until cilantro is chopped and integrated, but not pureed. You don’t want green hummus

PEANUT BUTTER HUMMUS: No tahini in sight? Down on sesame? Looking for a new twist on an old favorite? Substitute peanut butter (or almond butter or cashew butter) for the tahini. It will definitely be different from traditional hummus, but will keep you in the same ballpark of taste and consistency.