Saturday, January 03, 2009
RED CURRY PASTE FOR THE NEW YEAR
I knew I had hit a new level of culinary endeavor when I began making my own curry pastes. It's extremely rewarding to know that you've roasted and ground your own spices and shopped at your favorite Asian grocery store for fresh lemongrass and shrimp paste. We have a large Vietnamese population where SJG and I live, so we usually shop for our Asian specialty ingredients along one of the streets that has a high concentration of Vietnamese groceries and restaurants.
Our New Year's dinner plans fell through this year, so SJG and I are ringing in 2009 this evening with a Thai dish of pork and butternut squash, the base of which is coconut milk and the red curry paste I made this afternoon. If you have the right ingredients and the right equipment, it's easy to make.
Below is the recipe for red curry paste, adapted from Nancie McDermott's Real Thai: The Best of Thailand's Regional Cooking (Chronicle Books, 1992). I also like her Quick and Easy Thai: 70 Everyday Recipes (Chronicle Books, 2004) for when I have less time to cook. However, these quick recipes do sacrifice complexity of flavor by leaving out certain ingredients and time-consuming steps. If you have the inclination and the time, the recipes in Real Thai are somewhat more involved and, in the end, more satisfying to the palate.
Red Curry Paste
3 large dried New Mexico chile peppers
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
10 whole peppercorns (I use a French mix of black and green peppercorns)
4 stalks fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (with roots if you can find it)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (the brand I buy is packed in canola oil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Stem the chile peppers and shake out the seeds. Tear peppers gently into pieces and set in a medium-sized bowl. Cover with hot water (I bring a kettle almost to the boil) and let soften while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
2. In a small frying pan, dry-fry the coriander seeds for about 4 minutes. You'll know they're done when you can begin to smell the distinctive coriander scent and the seeds have begun to brown a little. Place in a small bowl to cool while you do the same step for the cumin seeds. The pan will be hot by this time, so it may only take a minute or two to roast the cumin seeds. Set aside to cool.
3. The roasted spices will cool fairly quickly. Transfer them to a spice grinder, a food processor, or a mortar and pestle. Add the peppercorns and grind to a smooth powder. I don't have a spice grinder, and my mortar isn't fully seasoned yet, so I took a compromise approach by grinding the spices in the food processor first and then finishing off with a small bowl and my pestle. Set aside.
4. Prepare the lemongrass by chopping off the root stub and all but the tenderest 3 inches or so (much of the top part of each stalk is too tough to use). Peel off a layer or two of the tough outter part of each stalk. Chop each stalk crosswise into small slices and put in the bowl of a food processor.
5. Add the chopped cilantro, ginger, garlic, shallots, and lime zest. Process until well blended.
6. Drain all but about 1/4 cup of the soaking juice from the chile peppers. Add the pieces of pepper and the 1/4 cup soaking juice to the food processor and process until you have a smooth paste.
7. Add the shrimp paste, ground spices, and salt and process again briefly until blended.
8. Store the curry paste in a glass jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep for about a week. It freezes well too. The curry paste recipe makes enough for three or four of your favorite curry recipes, depending on how generously you use the paste.
Happy New Year!