Conflicted Kitchen

Homemade Take Out

It's well worth the effort to make Thai curry paste from scratch

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As a cheerleader for home cooking, I try to avoid take out and delivery meals. But recently, when I was overcome with a craving for Thai food, I placed an order for pickup at my local curry spot. I tasked my husband with picking up dinner on his way home from work. The experience reminded me of all the things I hate about take out—the food wasn’t ready on time, it was cold and not as vibrantly flavored as I wanted. The spring rolls were greasy and excessively high in calories. The spice level was meek. And the price tag was high.

I decided the time had come for me to conquer Thai curries from scratch.

I have tried making my favorites before—green curry with vegetables, red curry with chicken and broccoli—with poor results. Up until now, I had always relied on jarred supermarket curry pastes. I knew if I wanted a better tasting finished product, I’d have to make the main ingredient from scratch.

Galangal root

Surprisingly, there aren’t that many resources online with recipes and information on making curry pastes from raw ingredients. One thing was immediately clear: some of the key ingredients were a little tricky to find. I would definitely need fresh galangal root, a relative of ginger with more complex and savory flavors, as well as lemon grass, fresh Thai chiles, Thai basil, and keffir lime zest and leaves.

Off to the Asian supermarket I went.

I know it’s a lot for a recipe writer to ask readers. Even enthusiastic home cooks bristle at shopping outside their established comfort zone. There is an intimidation factor, to be sure, and advance preparation is key. I Google-image-searched everything on my list so I could spot these unfamiliar ingredients in a place where not everything is labeled in English and there’s no one to ask for help.

A sweep of the store turned up everything I needed with two exceptions: no Thai basil and no keffir limes. I wasn’t going to let that stop me when I had everything else and substitutions in mind. I would mix basil with a little mint and cilantro for the Thai basil and use plain old limes instead of their keffir cousins.

I had two big batches of curry pastes planned, one green and one red, so I invited my friend Audrey to come help. She’s motivated to learn how to make new things but like many novice home cooks, a little hesitant to experiment herself. I really wanted an extra pair of hands for chopping, but I pitched it as an opportunity for her to learn how to make homemade Thai food.

I won’t pretend that it didn’t take two hours to wash, seed, stem, grate, peel and chop the many (many) ingredients. But I will tell you that the time went fast because we were simultaneously catching up over glasses of wine. We stood on opposite sides of my kitchen island and in between my short tutorials on how to exactly to handle the various ingredients we talked about our jobs, home decorating, and the upcoming wedding of one of our mutual friends.

All the green curry ingredients

Forty peeled cloves of garlic and dozens of seeded chiles later, we were ready to turn the fragrant fruits of our labor into fresh curry pastes with the help of my food processor. Even though I used gloves (which I definitely recommend), my fingers tingled from the heat of the chiles. When I removed the lid from the food processor the pungent vapors cleared my sinuses and stung my eyes. “This is going to good,” I promised. It was clearly potent stuff.

All told, we made three full cups of curry paste. That will yield a total of roughly 24 individual servings of various curries, soups, and stir-fries. Once you have the curry paste on hand, most of the things you’d want to make with it are fast and easy: fry the curry, add some broth and/or coconut milk, add your meats and veggies, finish with sugar, fish sauce, and fresh herbs and serve over rice. It’s an up-front investment of time and labor that pays off for months down the line.

When dinner was served—winter squash and vegetable green curry over rice—both Audrey and my husband were impressed. As we ate, I began to suspect that a lot of the lackluster Thai takeout I’ve eaten has been made with canned or jarred curry paste. My homemade version tasted better than those disappointing meals and it was a great deal cheaper, too. All the ingredients I bought to make the pastes themselves cost roughly $10.

If you like Thai take out, it really is worth the effort to visit the Asian market and get the ingredients and then spend the time to make the paste. Invite a food-loving friend over and make it a social event—there will be plenty of curry paste to share.

Thai Red Curry Paste

Ingredients:

  • ½ ounce small dried red chiles (about 20), stemmed and seeded
  • 2 jalapenos, seeded, stemmed and quartered
  • 3 stalks lemon grass, bottom 3 to 4 inches only, tough exterior layer removed, and tender inner layers chopped
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 20 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh galangal root
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro root and stems (no leaves)
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon lime zest
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

Combine all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and puree, scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically, until a relatively smooth paste forms, about 2 minutes. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month or freeze in ¼ cup portions in small zip-top bags for up to 6 months.

Makes about 1½ cup

Thai Green Curry Paste

Ingredients:

  • 25 fresh green Thai chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 2 jalapenos, stemmed and cut into quarters
  • 3 stalks lemon grass, bottom 3 to 4 inches only, tough exterior layer removed, and tender inner layers chopped
  • 2 shallots, chopped course
  • 20 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup cilantro root and stems
  • 3 tablespoons grated galangal
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon lime zest
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Instructions:

Combine all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and puree, scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically, until a relatively smooth paste forms, about 2 minutes. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month or freeze in ¼ cup portions in small zip-top bags for up to 6 months.

Makes about 1½ Cups

Winter Squash Curry

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • ½ cup curry paste (see recipes)
  • 2 cans coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces (roughly 4 cups)
  • 2 medium red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 2 cups string beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ½ cup basil, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Instructions:

In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the coconut oil.  Add the curry paste and fry it, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened in color and very fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Whisk in the coconut milk, brown sugar, and fish sauce and bring to a simmer. Add the squash, cover and cook until the squash begins to soften, about 8 minutes. Add the bell peppers and green beans and cook until the squash is tender and the other vegetables are crisp-tender, about 8 minutes more. Off heat, stir in the lime juice, basil, mint and cilantro and serve over white jasmine rice.

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