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.

Butter Chicken Adventures

Apparently, it’s White Girls Making Indian Meals Day here on the blog. Hurrah!

A while ago I tweeted that I’d like to take a look at 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi, as it was recommended by Francis Lam, who’s writing I’ve enjoyed on Salon.com and who is also very nice on Twitter. Turned out Sarah owned this book, and she lent it to me.

I have tried in the past to make curries, both Indian and Thai, from recipes gleaned from the Internet; all of them my husband has hated. This is an impediment, surely, since, y’know, that’s half of my cooking audience, generally. One of the problems with cooking for myself and my fuzzier half is that we have very different taste buds, or so it seems. He has a very sensitive palate, and is laid low by what I consider to be very mild levels of spiciness. On the other hand, I prefer very strong flavors and very spicy dishes. He thinks that my taste buds are in some way lacking in efficacy, and he may well be right, but I think this has its advantages: I genuinely like the taste of those bitter, dark green vegetables that one is always being told to consume for health, I can appreciate a good peaty Scotch, and I never look like one of those Middle American, Golden Corral patron-types when I go out to dinner to an “ethnic” restaurant. (A related aside: Nick and I went to lunch at Taste of India last week. There, we overhead one of said Middle Americans lecturing the Indian waiter, “Well, y’know, we Americans like middle-of-the-road stuff – nothing too spicy.” Sigh!)

Anyway. Trying to appease Ted’s delicate taste buds, and trying to make things easy on myself by picking a recipe I already had almost everything for, from Camellia’s cook book I chose Butter Chicken. Here is the recipe as I found it:

2 lb. chicken, skinned quarters, smaller pieces on the bone or boneless pieces (tikkas)
4-5 tablespoons oil

For the marinade:
2 cups plain yogurt
6 cloves garlic
1/2-in square of fresh ginger
2/3 teaspoon red chile powder or paprika
1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala powder
a tiny pinch of tandoori coloring (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lime juice

For the makhani sauce:
1&1/2 lb tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
[Sarah gave me a bag of these – yes, it appeared as though I had a huge bag of weed in my purse.]
3 oz. chilled butter [This amounts to 5 tablespoons, FYI.]
1/2 teaspoon paprika
few drops of vinegar
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
salt
1&1/2 fl oz of light cream
[About 2 tablespoons.]

My kitchen as I made my chicken curry, rice, and veggies.

Butter Chicken in process

I didn’t follow the recipe completely exactly. For one, Camellia wanted me to drain my yogurt in cheese cloth, which I don’t have, and didn’t feel like trying to track down. For two, she has very specific instructions for like, adding spices – “Add such and such, wait 30 seconds, add such and such, stir for a minute, add such and such …” – there’s something about this that just … I don’t know, I’m impatient: the spices went in all at the same time. Finally, instead of fresh tomatoes I used canned crushed tomatoes, since there aren’t any good tomatoes available this time of year anyway, and it saved me the effort of scalding and peeling and smooshing the substandard supermarket tomatoes. Oh, and I omitted the oil from the chicken, because it just didn’t seem necessary.

 

Basically, you put everything in the marinade, mix it well, insert the chicken (I used some free-range, vegetarian-fed, air-chilled, boneless, skinless thighs) and let it sit over night. Then you cook the chicken in the marinade, and make the tomato sauce at the last minute, pouring it in with the marinade-y chicken right before you serve the dish. I also made basmati rice and a mess of vegetables to go with the curry. Ted and friend Roger were my guinea pigs.

A pot full of simmering chicken in yogurt sauce.

The chicken as it cooked in its yogurt marinade.

Some trouble arose. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t drain the yogurt through cheese cloth, but the marinade became VERY watery as the chicken was cooking, such that, though Camellia said to cook the chicken low and covered, I ended up uncovering it and boiling off quite a bit of liquid. Also, I think in the future I would use a leaner cut of meat, as the thighs gave off quite a bit of fat that I had to skim off – actually, I think in the future I’d just make this with chickpeas, but that’s a different point.

 

So how was it received? Well, Ted loved it. Seriously. Roger also seemed to be very much in favor of it. I found it … bland, frankly. I knew that it wasn’t going to be spicy, of course, as I’d specifically picked a recipe that wouldn’t be spicy for Ted’s sake. But mild is not necessarily unflavorful. I felt as though all of the spice measurements should have been doubled. But perhaps that’s just my disabled taste buds talking. It was also a bit too tomato-y, perhaps because I’d used canned tomatoes instead of fresh – fair enough, in the future I suppose I’d try to track down a decent green house tomato or several.

I wish I had a picture of the final dish for you: I took one, but my phone’s camera decided not to save it, in a fit of pique. The dish comes out a creamy, orangey pink, and it presented well: had I had some fresh cilantro, that would have been a welcome vegetal note to add as a garnish.

So, judge for yourself: two yeas and a meh. I’m going to take a run at another curry, I think, before returning to this one, perhaps one that involves a little less dairy. And upon returning to this recipe, which I think Ted will insist upon, I think I’ll try increasing the spice measurements by 50% – perhaps Ted and I can find a happy medium.

Smorgasbord of Randomness, Part 1

Mambo: The Original Smorgasbord of RandomnessThere is a particular pattern on my studio’s advanced mambo syllabus that I have taken to calling the Smorgasbord of Randomness, based on the seemingly arbitrary selection of multitudinous elements packed together in one figure. I could not help, however, thinking of this moniker more literally when I hosted a recent dinner party.

Over the weekend, a confluence of circumstances conspired to bring a somewhat unlikely a collection of guests to my dinner table. Among them were Sabrina and Ted, as they are quite frequently the fulcrum of my guest list for parties, be they dinner or cocktail… or occasionally fondue, fellow dance instructor extraordinaire, Roger, who attended in prelude to his five-day belated birthday bar crawl (more on that to comes), and internet maven Saundra Kane, who has the parallel distinction of being my mother.

As with most modern dinner parties, it happens that many guests have dietary restrictions and strong food preferences. With Sabrina being a vegetarian and Ted being an almost, kinda, sorta vegetarian who also eats chicken on occasion, I decided to make Indian food, a cuisine which is perhaps tastiest in vegetarian form. But with the addition of Saundra, I needed to adjust my strategy. As a borderline diabetic and woman of tried and true American/Western European culinary tastes, Saundra would need, I knew, some non-Asian, low-carb additions to the menu. One side dish was obvious… whipped cauliflower, the diabetic’s answer to mashed potatoes, a recipe that is both easy and delicious. Contemplating the menu further, I asked myself, what low-carb food, within Saundra’s culinary realm, would be most like curry? The answer was, of course, stroganoff.

The Majesty of StroganoffFor years I have endeavored to make a tasty stroganoff from scratch, to find a recipe that requires no McCormick dry mix packets or cans of mushroom soup. I researched a plethora of recipes on Food.com, taking what I liked from one or the other to create my own stronganoff recipe. The result is a recipe both delicious and versatile. While I made it as a beef stronganoff, it can easily be converted to chicken or mushroom (i.e. vegetarian) stroganoff to fit a variety of diets and tastes.

Finally, I found myself unexpectedly with a supply of pitted dates, and so, despite the fact that Sabrina had taken on the task of providing a cheese tray, I bought a package of bacon so as to make one of my favorite appetizers, a simple and sinfully delicious finger food I learned from my friend Paloma, master of Spanish cookery.

These three recipes would constitute a meal in themselves for a smaller gathering, but in my case, they were only a few random parts of the smorgasbord.

PALOMA’S BACON-WRAPPED DATES

package of sliced bacon
pitted dates
wooden toothpicks

Cut the bacon in half down the center of the package so the slices are half as long. Roll each pitted date in one half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick. These appetizers can be fried right away or made ahead and refrigerated for a few hours so that they can be made fresh right before serving. Heat a non-stick skillet to medium or medium-high heat and fry the bundles until bacon is crisp.

I don’t know exactly how Paloma did it, but my strategy for frying these appetizers so that the bacon gets done evenly is as follows. I first place each date bundle on its side with the top overlap of bacon facing down and the tip of the toothpick touching the pan. When that side is done, I flip and do the other side (using a spoon or utensil to manipulate the pieces; the toothpick tip will be hot from sitting in the bacon grease), again with the toothpick tip touching the pan. Finally I stand them upright so that the bottom gets done and the toothpicks cool off a bit before I take them out of the pan and set them on a paper towel to drain.

MASHED CAULIFLOWER

2 (1lb.) bags of frozen cauliflower
1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese
shredded cheddar cheese, optional & to taste
white pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the cauliflower. Boil at least 10 minutes until cauliflower is tender. Drain the cauliflower in a colander. Use a food processor, immersion blender or electric beaters (the latter makes a more textured or “lumpy” mashed consistency) to whip the cauliflower and combine it with the cheese. Doing this when the cauliflower is still piping hot will help the cheese melt.

The cauliflower can be served hot at this point, but sometimes it can be a little soupy at first. I like to put it in a casserole dish and bake it to give it a firmer texture. It’s convenient to make first and then leave in the oven on low-ish heat while preparing the rest of dinner.

BEEF, CHICKEN OR VEGETARIAN STROGANOFF

2 lbs beef, chicken breast or wild mushrooms
4 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, chopped (if unavailable, 1 teaspoon minced garlic)
1 onion, sliced
1 cup beef broth or chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1 lb portabello mushrooms, quartered (if not using mushrooms to begin with)
1 cup sour cream

Cube meat or slice mushrooms. Melt butter in a medium to large saucepan and use it to saute the onion and shallot over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Add the meat or mushrooms. Add the broth, mustard, white pepper, wine and additional mushrooms (if using). Heat over low fire to desired doneness. I like to stew slowly all day until the meat falls apart, but to each his own. Once meat and mushrooms are cooked as desired, if there is still a lot of liquid left, strain it out of the pan and into its own smaller saucepan or skillet. Bring liquid to a boil and stir frequently until liquid is reduced to a sauce that will coat the solid ingredients like a gravy. Return the reduction to the solid ingredients. Heat through and remove from burner. Stir in the sour cream and serve!

For people who are not concerned about carbohydrate intake, the reduction step can be eliminated by instead removing enough liquid from the pan to make a paste with 4 tablespoons of flour. Return the paste to the pan and heat until it thickens. I do my best to search for ways to eliminate carbs at every turn, which is also why I didn’t serve it over noodles or rice. Either of these options is, of course, your prerogative for a traditional stroganoff.

So concludes the non-Asian portion of my Smorgasbord of Randomness. Stay turned for vegetarian curries.