Monday, December 3, 2012

OMG a Recipe: You Can't Hurry Curry

You can't hurry love, no you'll just have to wait... and you can't hurry curry, so keep your knickers on! I came to the realization when looking at curry paste labels, specifically red curry,  if you're a vegetarian it's really tough to enjoy this without the pesky fish sauce or ground up shrimp that's inevitably mixed into that swarm of ingredients. I'm sure there's vegetarian-friendly curry pastes out there, but what if you can't find it? What if that one bottle the grocery store stocks was just nabbed by that skinny jean-wearing hipster in your neighborhood that you swear you saw eating a hamburger just the other week? Fear not, because if you have a little extra time on your hands, you can make your own vegetarian-friendly red curry and never be thwarted by skinny jean hipsters again. 

Rejoice, Meatless Monday Fans! Veggies are our FRIENDS! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
In honor of Meatless Monday, I wanted to share my adventures in making curry paste. This is more of a Thai-style curry, not an Indian or even a Japanese style curry, which just shows how popular curry is around the world and how nebulous the meaning is behind "curry." I have a deep fondness for Thai food, I love the combination of sweet, savory and spicy. Even the dish that's swimming in marvelously pungent fish sauce still manages to have some brightness to it, thanks to coconut milk or some fresh Thai basil. It's such a complex cuisine that I enjoy exploring from a home-cook standpoint as much as going out and eating it.

I love Thai curries, especially the spicy ones with a heavy garlic/ginger/chili kick, and I love the ease that this intense flavor can be easily added to dishes with the help of a concentrated paste. I've bought different curry pastes and I love the convenience of it, but thinking about Meatless Monday, I looked at a lot of the jarred pastes and saw that there were still creatures of the sea used for flavoring. Fail. Granted, this is part of the complexity of flavor, that unctuous depth that a fermented fish sauce or shrimp paste can add to a dish, but I wanted to see if by removing this element, a curry could still be good and Meatless Monday-friendly.  And hey-yo, it was plenty tasty.

Homemade curry paste goodness with or without meat - Photos by Wasabi Prime
 I looked online for different red curry paste recipes and sort of pieced together the common ingredients, minus the fish sauce. It's a lot of the same items: ginger, garlic, cilantro, lemongrass or fresh citrus, and lots of chiles both dried and fresh. Once it's all finely ground together in a paste and allowed to sit for a bit for the flavors to come together, it's a great flavoring to add to other dishes beyond curry. I've used it to punch up stir frys or work into a ground meat marinade, like if you're doing Asian-style meatballs. A lot of the paste's flavor gets developed in the bottom of a hot wok, letting it fry in some oil, get a little smoked and toasted, and then adding in whatever vegetables you wish before cooling the whole pan down with a can of coconut milk. I've used this curry paste several times now, for both meat and meatless dishes, and it gives the tastebuds a satisfying Fight Club smackdown.

Get a good food processor, or have a lot of patience if you're doing this with a mortar and pestle. If you're Amish, maybe you'd use a mortar and pestle, but if you're Amish, you're likely not reading this blog post on the Devil's Technology Box. Don't fuss with a mortar and pestle, they're overrated. And if you think it would be all cool and foodie-like to own one, save your pennies for a good food processor and several spice grinders. I rarely use my mortar and pestle and still wonder why the hell I bought it. But getting a couple of inexpensive pepper mills isn't a bad idea -- I have one that's just full of Szechuan peppercorns, along with one for regular peppercorns. Having a spare spice mill is handy for recipes like this, if you want to use whole spices before adding everything into a food processor to fully buzz down. A food processor won't grind the spices completely, and for a paste, you should get everything as finely ground as possible. I would have buzzed this batch of red curry paste down even further, but the Mister was trying to watch TV and me running the food processor was really annoying.

Plan on making the curry paste a few days before you use it. This is where you can't hurry curry. If you're making the paste from scratch, the mixture of fresh and dried ingredients deserve some time to mingle and get to know one another before they get down their bad self in the bottom of a hot wok. Just plan on making extra paste, get a few jars' worth and keep a couple in the freezer for later use -- that's what I do. It'll taste better as everything soaks together in its flavor-mush, so let time be your BFF when  making curry paste. 

So many veggies, you won't miss the meat, I promise - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Vegetarian curries are easy to enjoy and you won't miss the meat, despite what that Red-Blooded American Wearing a Trucker Hat inside you says. The trick is choosing a variety of vegetables and not just one or two. For this one, I had squash, carrots, green beans, bell peppers and Swiss chard. I cooked them in the order of longest cooking time, so carrots first, then bell peppers and squash, the stems of the chard before the leaves, then the green beans towards the end, just so they would keep their color and crunch. I added cubes of tofu after the coconut milk was poured in. You wouldn't even call it vegetarian curry at that point, it was just curry. And it was delicious.

As a side note, I like adding ground turmeric to curries, just to get that strong golden color, especially since this red curry paste doesn't make the dish bright red. I personally don't notice the turmeric flavor, but I'll toast it a little in the wok with the curry paste and oil before adding the vegetables and the color just distributes with everything.

Colorful meal and tasty over quinoa in place of rice! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So plan ahead -- make this paste at least a few days before you want to use it. Have the proper equipment to get everything as finely ground as possible and don't even think about doing all this with a mortar and pestle if you ever wish to see the outside world again. Once the paste is properly self-marinated, use as you would in any favorite curry recipe, with as many or few tablespoons as you like. And add more chili peppers if you want more heat, this recipe is more two-star than five-star.

Vegetarian Red Curry Paste  (makes several cups' worth - save extra in jars and freeze for later)

1 bunch of fresh cilantro
1/2 cup chopped onion or shallot
1/4 cup garlic cloves 
1 tablespoon cumin
4 dried red chile de arbol, stems removed, or fresh thai bird chilis (can add more if you want it super-spicy)
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger
2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons chopped lemongrass
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Zest and juice of 1 lime

If using whole spices, grind them down first to a fine powder. Take all the ingredients and place into a food processor to fully pulverize and combine. Make sure no one is trying to watch television, or read, or perform delicate neurosurgery in the next room because it may take a while for your food processor to get everything to a paste. It's fine if you keep it rustic, aka, chunky, just don't be surprised if you get a bite of chili pepper! Use final paste as you would in your favorite curry recipe.

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