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Real Vegetarian Thai: Spicy Goodness

mussaman curry paste, mussaman curry with seitan, rice noodles with broccoli, cucumber salad, coconut ice cream

MussamanCurryI love Thai food, but I’ve always assumed that it’s difficult to make: so many unusual ingredients, plus the effort of making your own curry paste. I’ve had Real Vegetarian Thai sitting on my shelves for years, and it looks like in that time the only dish we’ve tried is the Pad Thai, which Scott prepared (with the marginal note “double everything”). So with the holiday weekend ArbolChiles2approaching, I decided it was time to throw a dinner party, invite a few people who haven’t been here for the last few blog efforts, and put together some Thai food.

I leafed through the book and decided to make a cucumber salad, a noodle dish, a curry, and dessert. I made a list of ingredients I’d need, and was CorianderCumin2impressed to find that the only thing I hadn’t found locally before was lemongrass, which would be a base for the curry paste. I canvassed the stores in the neighborhood; no lemongrass. A few shopkeepers said “sometimes we have it, but not now.” I finally found some at an organic store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that I was passing on my way to do something else, and my shopping Lemongrass2list was complete.

I began with the coconut ice cream. This is a dairy-free dessert, and very simple: You cook coconut milk with some sugar, then let it cool, then churn the mixture into ice cream. After I’d chilled the mixture I was startled to find that it had separated into thick solid and liquid, but with some effort I was CurryIngredientsable to break up the solid part enough that it would blend well in the ice cream maker. I set that going and proceeded with my next effort, mussaman curry paste.

Curry pastes are the bases for curry sauces in Thai food. The basic ones are green curry, yellow curry, red curry and mussaman; mussaman is basically red curry CurryIngredients2with some additional spices that import a little more of an Indian flavor, the name deriving from the Muslim traders who brought goods from elsewhere in Asia. I began by breaking the tops off about 15 red arbol chiles, shaking out as many of the seeds as I could, and then soaking them in hot water for about 20 minutes. While they soaked, I chopped my lemongrass stalks into small MussamanCurryPaste4pieces and put them into the bowl of the mini-food-processor attachment for my mixer. To this I added chopped shallot, cilantro, ginger and garlic. Now it was time to dry-toast some cumin and coriander seeds, then grind them in a spice grinder with some peppercorns. I zested a lime and added that to the mixture, then added some cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and Cucumbersalt; these are the spices that make the difference between red curry and mussaman curry. I drained the chiles and added them to the bowl, and pureed it all into a thick paste, adding a bit of water as necessary to keep the blades moving and grinding. I offered it to Scott to smell and he didn’t want to give it back.

I put the curry paste into the RedOnion2fridge and prepared the marinade for the cucumber salad: sugar, salt, vinegar and water, boiled together and then allowed to cool. Closer to dinnertime, I peeled and chopped a couple of cucumbers, minced a red onion, and chopped some cilantro, then mixed these together and added the vinegar mixture. The bowl went into the fridge, and I chopped some peanuts and pulled some cilantro CucumberSaladleaves to garnish them with just before serving.

For the curry I was going to need seitan balls. The cookbook gives a recipe for old-school seitan, mixing a flour paste and then rinsing away the non-gluten part. I don’t have the patience. I mixed some vital wheat gluten flour with some nutritional yeast flakes, garlic powder, soy sauce and Seitan2water, following a recipe I use for my Thanksgiving vegetarian feast; I kneaded the spongy mixture briefly, then shaped it into chunks, and browned them in olive oil. I set them aside.

Closer to mealtime I began the other dishes, starting with the mussaman curry. I did my vegetable prep: two diced sweet potatoes, two diced white RiceNoodlespotatoes, and some chopped onions and garlic. I heated 2/3 cup of coconut milk in my big Calphalon pot; when it was warm I stirred in two tablespoons of the curry paste and cooked it together for a few minutes, then added more coconut milk to total two cans, some vegetable broth, the vegetables and seitan, and some spices including cilantro and cardamom pods. I brought the CucumberSaladPlatedmixture to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Then I stirred in some peanuts and let the mixture sit keeping warm. Technically I was supposed to let it sit 5 minutes, but I forgot to start the rice cooker until it was nearly dinnertime, so I let the curry mixture sit a little longer while the rice finished cooking. We served the curry with rice, and warned guests to be careful RiceNoodlesWithBroccoli2about the difference between cardamom pods and peanuts when chewing.

The last dish was the noodle dish, which was pretty simple. I soaked some dried rice noodles in hot water to reconstitute them; while they soaked I sauteed garlic, mushrooms and broccoli, then set those aside and added fresh oil to the pan. I drained the rice noodles and sauteed them. At this point I was supposed to add beaten eggs and cook them, but one of our guests was a vegan and I decided to just skip the eggs. Once the noodles were sauteed I returned the vegetables to the pan and added a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, and vegetable broth, and tossed it all together.

I brought out the cucumber salads first, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, then the noodle dish. The rice was ready about 10 minutes after that, so we brought out the curry and dug in. Everyone loved the food; the noodle dish was especially delightful, and we were all tempted to fill up on it without leaving enough room for curry. But the curry was tremendous. It wasn’t overly spicy, though I think if I made more for just me and Scott I’d add a little more curry paste to the sauce mixture. We ate so eagerly that we were a little worried about having room for dessert, but the coconut ice cream was light and refreshing, a perfect end to the meal.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be using the mussaman curry paste again, and making other dishes from this as well.

This Can’t Be Tofu: Little Cubes of Curried Goodness

sauteed asparagus with curried tofu and tomatoes

PlatedTofuI’m halfway through the set period for this experiment and am only a bit over one-third of the way through the list of cookbooks. This is a fairly straightforward problem. To get through the list by my June 30 deadline, I need to be making more recipes each week, and this means I need to do more cooking on weeknights.

On paper this looks very simple. I wrote out a list of the weeks from now until June 30, and then assigned books to each week. First I scheduled the books that I’d already allotted to each month, and then I added in the 12 books that I never got to from the first half of the project. Each week has two or three books to deal with. Mostly three. I did a little fiddling to make sure that no week featured only the bad books from the Recipes of the Damned set, but overall I felt that this was a very workable plan. And it is. The batches of potential recipes for each week are both small enough to be manageable (I only have to do one from each book, after all) and large enough to push me not to over-think any single book’s selections. In theory this should work.

IngredientBowlsSo I’m a little worried after Monday night’s efforts. The food was terrific — more on that shortly. The recipes performed as promised, or even better. The ingredients were not impossible to find, or unreasonably priced. The steps were clear and easy to follow. And yet, we were sitting down to eat at 9:15 pm. This had not been my plan.

I know that doesn’t sound so bad. As I type, fresh from having finally watched “Julie & Julia,” I am very conscious of the fact that when Julie Powell worked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking she often did not have dinner on the table until after 10 at night. All year long. I am also very aware that I don’t have even a fifth of the recipes to complete that she did. I don’t have to make aspic if I don’t want to. (And believe me, I don’t want to. Oh, how I don’t want to.) But I am somehow still disorderly and disorganized enough that a not-overly-complicated stir-fried dish and a baked pudding took me the better part of two hours to pull together, and I am not inclined to give myself points for having spent part of that time washing dishes in order to clear the sink for the evening’s work.

AsparagusPiecesGranted, I don’t think Julie Powell paused every few minutes to obsessively photograph things, or spent time formatting the photos and uploading them. This does contribute to the overall workload. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference.

At any rate, it’s clear to me that I’m going to have to do more advance planning. So for example, picking up the groceries the day before rather than on my way home from work that same day. Or reading through the recipes more carefully to plan what I can do simultaneously — so that (not to make an example of last night or anything) I can make sure to set a pan full of water to boil before I am done with all of the vegetable prep, rather than having to stop and wait for it to be ready. Or making sure that if I’m planning to do blog cooking one night I have not left half a sink of dishes soaking from the night before.

TofuCubesThat said, the sauteed asparagus with curried tofu and tomatoes was worth the wait. The book, This Can’t Be Tofu, dates from my vegetarian heyday, yet I don’t think I’d ever used it before. I’m pretty sure it was one of those books I’d periodically flip through and think “I should make that dish, or that one” before resorting to my usual improvised tofu stir-fry. I have been missing out.

It helps that I like tofu. It’s a terrific, versatile food, and it tastes good, and it is its own thing. I have no patience with people who assume that if you like cheeseburgers or bacon, or bacon cheeseburgers, you can’t possibly like tofu. It’s true that if what you really really want is a bacon cheeseburger and instead you eat miso soup with cubes of soft tofu floating in it, you will not be satisfied, but you shouldn’t expect the tofu to do exactly what the bacon cheeseburger would do. (Particularly to your arteries.) But that’s going to be true any time you substitute what you think you should have for what you really want but insist on resenting the decision, and it’s especially true if you substitute a caricatured version of what you think you should have for what you really want. Don’t blame the tofu if the real problem is that you lack the courage of your convictions.

FryingCurriedTofuAnyway. All this is a long-winded way to say, tofu is good stuff, and this asparagus dish is an exemplar. I started (after the vegetable prep) by dicing a package of extra-firm tofu into cubes — “about the size of a sugar cube,” said the book. I boiled some water and cooked the cubes in it for about two minutes, then drained them and spread them out on two layers of paper towel, and used another paper towel to blot the moisture on top. I then tossed the tofu cubes with a mixture of sugar, pepper, curry powder, turmeric and salt, then sauteed them in canola oil until they were nicely browned; once they looked right, all golden and crusty, I scooped them from the pan and set them aside. This sounds more complicated than it was in practice, and from boiling to frying can’t have been more than 10 minutes, tops.

OnionsAsparagusI returned the pan to the heat, added a little more oil, and sauteed some garlic, cumin and onion; once the onions were translucent I raised the heat and added some asparagus (cut into roughly three-inch lengths), red pepper flakes and salt, and sauteed that mixture until the asparagus was tender but not limp. In the spring with thin asparagus this might take five minutes, but I had thick out-of-season asparagus and it took closer to eight minutes for the color and texture to be right. Then I added some diced roma tomatoes and the tofu cubes, cooked the whole mixture for about a minute more, and then turned off the heat and stirred in some chopped cilantro and a little more cumin.

TofuTomatoAsparagusMixtureOh, man, this was good. I served it over rice. The flavors were lively: the curried tofu was spicy without being overly hot, the asparagus blended a bitter undertone with a hearty vegetable taste, and the onions gave the whole thing richness and pop. Even the sadly out-of-season tomatoes gave a balancing tang; this will be exceptional when I can make it with local, ripe tomatoes.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be making this one again, but I think I’ll wait until asparagus and tomatoes come into the Greenmarket this spring.