|Thai green curry with tofu. © Ryan Schierling|
So, the few who have had it – in the spontaneous and informal space of an evening at home – have been friends stopping by the wee suburban cabin when no plans were made and there was no special occasion to celebrate. It represents to us the simple comfort of family and nourishment to warm the belly.
How green curry came to be part of our repertoire is one of the earliest food stories that Ryan and I share. Before I moved into the bungalow next door to Ryan in Seattle – before we'd even met – I lived a short block away in a sweet, old third-floor apartment right above a Thai restaurant. Once every week or two I would either stop by or call in an order for pick-up. The were five or six dishes I particularly enjoyed, but the curry (especially the green curry) was my rich and delicious "usual" on a cold and rainy night.
Fast forward a few years and Ryan and I had been dating for just a few months. He'd heard me talk about of my love for green curry, but when together we were more likely to cook than order out.
One night Ryan decided to make green curry. It wasn't something he'd ever mentioned doing, so it was a bit of a surprise. I was at my place and he was cooking at his place that evening, so I didn't see him prepare it. It was an impressive first effort by any account, and a genuinely thoughtful gesture in food. It became evident almost immediately, however, that I had neglected to properly introduce him to my favorite local take-out and its subleties. He was clearly not altogether familiar with this particular dish. What cracked me up the most was the Chinese-style inclusion of baby corn and sliced water chestnuts to the vegetable ensemble. We had a good laugh, I fell a little more in love, and we ordered ourselves a proper green curry later that week for dinner.
Now, you must understand, I was always perfectly happy to do take-out. I mean, some nights you just don't want to cook and this favorite was still conveniently located right across the street. But, Ryan was determined to make this dish just as well, or better, at home. He researched, found all the key ingredients and made trips to the local Asian supermarket.
Then one day it happened – that fateful day ingrained upon my memory, when I looked up from my plate and said "Damn you, Ryan, you've officially ruined me for take-out."
So, here it is for all my friends who can't be here to stand over my shoulder while I prepare it. Yes, these days it's usually me – and I'm especially grateful for Ryan's tenacity now that we live here in Texas. Thai curry is very easy to make, but you do have to stock your pantry with a few very specific ingredients in order to enjoy it the way we do here at home. I'm not saying you can't do whatever the hell you want in the comfort of your own kitchen, but if you want it to taste anything like ours, then, well... don't try adding water chestnuts or baby corn.
If this is new territory for you, as it was once for us, I'm going to walk through "whys" of some of the items on the shopping list so the reasons for not making certain substitutions are clear.
Lest I lose you too soon on account of the tofu, I'm going to make my statement of defense right up front. Now is the time to let go of any prejudicial notions you may have about the stuff. If, like me, you have had tofu so unfortunately prepared that your nose curls at the thought of it, I assure you that in this context tofu is neither "scary" nor "gross." In this recipe we don't even fry it. We actually prefer it fresh – essentially poached in the curry sauce. Firm (or "hard") tofu cuts nicely and holds its shape with gentle stirring. Further, it has a wonderful tender sweetness that is absolutely delicious in combination with the vegetables and spicy curry sauce. It is our protein of choice for all our Thai curries.
Chicken is probably the second best option, if you insist upon a meat protein.
We have not ventured into making our own curry paste. It's just not a practical work night proposition, particularly when there are good quality curry pastes on the market such as Maesri or Mae Ploy. You will most likely never find these brands on the shelves of your local grocery store, but most Asian specialty grocers will carry a wide variety. Get a few cans to stock your pantry. This is the base of the dish and it is just not worth compromising.
Do note that green curry paste can be pretty spicy. It "starts" at a mild-ish two stars (out of 5) on the "heat-o-meter." Get the occasional batch made with some particularly hot chiles and you might find yourself begging for mercy. Adjusting the palm sugar up a bit helps, but when you get a really hot batch, you'll be talking about it for months.
Red curry and is milder than green and often benefits from the addition of red pepper flakes for added heat. Yellow curry is milder still, and mellowed even more with the addition of root vegetables which suit it so well.
There are certainly homemade curry paste recipes to be found out there, and I encourage you to try them if you're feeling adventurous. But it is my humble goal for you to be able to make a delicious Thai dinner in about the time it takes to order take-out. All you need is to be prepared with a few simple ingredients ahead of time.
The Coconut Milk, Fish Sauce, and Palm Sugar
Listed within the recipe below are recommendations for our favorite coconut milk and fish sauce to use. The only reason or motivation we have for calling these brands out is that we know what it is like to stand in an aisle at the store trying to tell from the labels which brand is better. We've been there, done that, come home and done the research, and learned from experience. If you try other canned coconut milks you will soon see what we mean – some are watery or separated and just don't have the same rich, creamy consistency we get from Chaokoh and prefer in a curry. We have used other fish sauces successfully in the past, but Red Boat is a highly-regarded brand that is widely available, very good, and our current pantry staple.
So, why palm sugar? Can you substitute brown or white sugar? No, you should not. The palm sugar imbues the curry with its own subtle flavor. It really isn't the same curry without palm sugar, which is getting easier to find these days as it is used in a variety of ethnic cuisines. It is usually found in the form of 2 inch discs sealed together in a clear package. Each disc weighs about 35-40 grams (I have included a measurement in grams in case you do not find it in the disc form as we normally do.) You should generally start with about 40 grams (one disc) of palm sugar per recipe and go up from there to taste. The hotter the curry, the more you will find you need the sweetness to balance the heat. WIth green curry we typically use 1-1/2, sometimes up to 2 discs.
Maybe it's just what I'm used to, or a matter of experience and personal preference, but to my mind vegetables are not all interchangeable when it comes to curry. The items listed are intentional and what I like to see in a particular Thai curry.
Green beans and bell peppers are pretty straight forward, but the eggplant you want is not the giant purple one you're accustomed to seeing. There are three varieties of eggplant that I can recommend specifically: the golf ball-sized green Thai eggplants, the little egg-shaped purple Italian variety, and the long slender Japanese purple eggplant which can be sliced a quarter inch thick on the diagonal for best effect.
We make red and yellow curry essentially the same way as the green curry except each has a different cadre of vegetables that suits it best. If you decide to branch out, here's how we recommend it goes down:
Red curry paste
1 - 8 ounce can julienned bamboo shoots
or 2 cups of cubed Kabocha squash (Asian pumpkin) – for a delicious pumpkin curry
1 red bell pepper, deveined and sliced
Fresh Thai basil
Yellow curry paste
1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into large bite-size pieces
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced 1/8" thick on diagonal
1/2 red or green bell pepper, deveined and sliced
Fresh Thai basil (a few sprigs will do)
Thai basil is NOT the same as sweet basil of the Italian variety you find in most American grocery stores. It is green with purple stems and has a wonderful anise aroma which is amazing in curry and all manner of Thai cuisine. It can be found in the produce section of your local Asian grocer, probably near the lemongrass. We source it at MT Supermarket in Austin when we don't have any growing in our herb garden. Siam Queen Thai Basil is a good backyard variety. The stems are a bit woodier and the plant more shrub-like than most basil, but the distinctive anise flavor is there along with the purple of the stems and flower buds. If you keep pinching off the flowers, you can have a long season of use from just one plant. The basil does not need to be chopped or cut. Just throw in the leaves (or whole sprigs if they are tender). Add them at the end so they don't break down too much. I like to add the basil in a couple of stages, the first to infuse the flavor into the sauce and a little more immediately before serving to have some fresher and brighter flavors come through.
Thai Green Curry with Fresh Tofu
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 ounce can green curry paste (Maesri or Mae Ploy brand)
13.5 ounce can coconut milk (Chaokoh brand)
1-2 "discs" (each disc is about 35-40 grams, or to taste) of palm sugar, shaved with a knife
1 tablespoon fish sauce (Red Boat brand)
16 ounce tub of hard or firm tofu (look for non-GMO on label), drained and cut into 1 inch cubes
Vegetables (See text above for vegetables if using red or yellow curry paste.)
1 Japanese eggplant, sliced (or 6 Thai green or small purple Italian eggplants, quartered)
1 pound fresh green beans (or frozen haricot verts if not in season)
1 green bell pepper, deveined and sliced
Generous handful of fresh Thai Basil, whole leaves and tender stems
In a 3 quart saute pan (preferably one with a lid), heat about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and add the whole can of curry paste, stirring to smooth it out. Add about 1/4 of the can of coconut milk and mix well with the paste. Add the rest of the coconut milk about 1/4 of the can at a time until completely mixed. (Fill the can with filtered water and set aside to add later.) When this mixture is heated to gentle bubbling, add the tofu and allow to poach for a few minutes. Add about half the can of water, palm sugar and fish sauce and bring back up to heat, gently stirring to dissolve the sugar and turn the tofu.
Add the rest of the water, then the fresh green beans, then the eggplant, and allow to cook for a few minutes. (I like to cover or partially cover to simmer at this point so the moisture is retained in the pan.) When these vegetables are getting tender and nearly done, add the sliced bell pepper. Depending upon the size of your vegetables you will have to estimate cooking times so that hopefully each of your veggies will be done at the same time. Before adding the fresh basil, taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning (palm sugar and fish sauce) if needed. Just a minute or two prior to serving, add the fresh basil to the pan and cover to simmer a few seconds longer.
Serve with Jasmine rice, white or brown, prepared according to package directions. (I generally get the rice started around the same time I'm starting my curry in the pan.)