Hot and Wholesome: Green Curry Paste

     The other day we were out with friends at a Thai restaurant in Los Gatos and as per usual we ordered the Green Curry – we explained to our friends that it’s our way of testing out a new Thai Restaurant.  If the Green Curry passes muster then we will surely return.  Well, the Green Curry at Thai Spice of Los Gatos was delicious, and it served a greater purpose.  It reminded me how much joy I used to get from making my own.  I have gotten out of the habit lately, falling prey to the super cheater method of getting a jar of pre-made green curry paste . . . don’t get me wrong, it always tastes good – I mean how bad can anything be after adding a can of coconut milk – but still, it is definitely not the same experience . . .
     So as soon as I got home, I pulled out my old truly favorite cookbook called The Whole Chile Pepper Book, by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach.  I first picked it up when the kids were very young. At that time we had become obsessed with spicy dishes. We were curious about all the different chiles available and wanted to know how they compared to each other. The Whole Chile Pepper Book has a section at the front with photographs of the world’s best chiles and descriptions about their flavor and level of spiciness.  Each chapter starts with a little historical perspective on a particular region’s spicy cuisine.  As such it is a wonderful resource to learn more – and the recipes from around the world are the best!  Many times I have given this cookbook as a gift. 
     Let’s just say, this cookbook opened doors for us and led us to enjoy spicier cuisines and encounters.  We knew we loved cayenne, Anaheim, jalapeno, serrano, chipotle and poblano, but we wanted to try more.  What were mirasol, pasilla and piquins like? We became obsessed.  Our inquiries eventually led us to the habanero.  These, we learned, were the hottest chiles available.  Habaneros are small squarish, orangish yellow chiles and have a particular kind of smoky taste to them.  They are quite distinguishable from other peppers.  They rank a 10/10 on the Capsaicin heat scale. 
     On my 30th birthday, my father-in-law, Howard, (a certified lover of the spiciest dishes) challenged me to a habanero-eating contest.  He pretty much popped one in his mouth and without batting an eye, ate it.  Not to be outdone, I quickly did the same.  Holy Guacamole!  Within seconds, tears were streaming down my face. I jumped up and began hopping up and down hysterically and running around in little circles.   Habaneros are really really hot . . .!  
     But what can I say? It was an era of drinking too much, and believing our physical and emotional bodies could handle anything . . . in short, we had become addicted to a hot and spicy life – tears and hysteria were part of the journey.
Hand Painted Spanish Dancers
Salsa Cupboard and Painted Chiles
     During this time we had parties with our friends every weekend.  Our house was the largest, so we nearly always hosted the parties.  We built a dancing deck and painted giant wall murals directly on the walls of our kitchen:  Spanish dancers, bougainvillea, grape vines and, of course . . . chile peppers.   One night we got seriously rambunctious and declared that a salsa cupboard was a mandatory new addition to the kitchen.  All cupboards were spoken for so we grabbed a Sawzall and sawed a large opening in the wall between our kitchen and living room.  This became our new built-in salsa shelf.  Above it, we hammered in dowels to hold our random collection of wine glasses.  We initiated the protocol that every adult attendee had to bring one jar of salsa and one wine glass to each party. 
     Mind you, there were usually 6 kids under 5 running around, and . . . well, I guess now that my kids are grown and seem to be doing quite well, I can share this . . . we relied on a sort of “benign neglect” concept of parenting at these parties.  The kids had their room and we had ours.  We provided toys, snacks, movies and playmates.  Everyone brought jammies and a blankie with them . . . they could stay up or lie down to sleep as pleased them.
     I am not entirely sure I can recommend our technique, for certainly there were downsides . . . such as the following morning, which came awfully soon after the night had ended, when one of the children would pitter patter across the floor and pull open the blinds, announcing in the most precious innocent little Cindy Lou Who voice “Look Mommy – it’s morning time!”  (. . . aarrgghh . . . snarfle snarfle . . . really?)
     Over indulgence aside, it was also during this era that I began to appreciate the joy of making things from scratch. Some of it stemmed from having fun with the kids. These were our homeschooling days, so while our nights were hot and spicy, intoxicating, and adult driven, our days were filled with looking at the world from the perspective of a child full of curiosity.  Everything was an opportunity to integrate learning in a wholesome way and the kitchen figured prominently:  for instance, we started a garden and intentionally grew all our own ingredients so that we could  “grow vegetable soup” from seed!  It was also during this era that my Aunt Marjan (the real gourmet cook of the family) encouraged me to buy an old-fashioned pasta maker at a garage sale.  The kids and I learned how to make our own pasta dough and spent many an hour cutting the homemade dough into strips that we draped around the kitchen to dry.  Of course, we grew rows of our own basil so that we could make our own pesto to go on our hand-cut noodles . . . everything was fresh and delicious and fun to make! 
     But truly one of the greatest “cooking from scratch” discoveries of this chapter in my life was making green curry paste.  I think it was at this time that I began to evolve into a kind of peasant kitchen witch (with a “w” . . . I hoped) There’s something about standing in the kitchen before a mortar and pestle grinding seeds for this paste that is purely magical . . . and the aroma?  Well, it is simply intoxicating (and thankfully, while it is certainly addicting, does not contribute to a hangover!)
My well loved page from
The Whole Chile Pepper Book
     So, as I was saying, I recently was flooded with memories of this time, including the joy of making my own green curry paste, and as soon as I got home I pulled out The Whole Chile Pepper Book and began.  Into the blender I popped serranos, jalapenos, garlic, shallots, ginger and cilantro.  Then into my beautiful stone mortar I threw coriander seeds, caraway seeds, whole peppercorns, cumin, nutmeg, cloves and lemon rind, and, pestle in hand, began grinding . . . It was bewitching . . . the fragrance of these fine spices and chiles swirling together filled the kitchen.  (Trust me, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle yet – it’s worth it just for this recipe.)  The stress of three days traveling for work, the recent worries about my own worthiness, all got lost in the scent.  Jay, in the other room ever working long diligent hours paused as the smell reached him.  “When will dinner be ready?”
     And, as I stood there grinding, my memories swirled too, and I began to realize that life is a bit like that:  a combination of all kinds of different ingredients:  different eras, different chapters, different stories.  Each one contributes some of the flavor to your life’s story, and together, however humble or grand, they create something rich, extraordinary and unique.
     After making the green curry paste once again after so long, we sat down to eat while watching a movie:  Arabian Nights.  In the movie Scheherazade tells the prince a series of wondrous stories to cure him of his madness.  And in one of the opening scenes, we hear these words: “People need stories more than bread itself – they teach us how to live and why”. 
     And so it was that the “open sesame” magic of reopening The Whole Chile Pepper Book and performing the actions required to make the paste had two effects:  one was bringing to mind stories from an entirely different chapter of my life–stories that left their own indelible lessons; the other was to simultaneously bring me to the present moment: standing in my new kitchen, filled with a delectable aroma, children now off to college—the mystery of my life yet unfolding unknown before me.  
     As I stood there, experiencing the discreet spices combining to create something new and the confluence of my stories old and new, I recognized my own madness and programming  and appreciated the possibility that whatever had passed before and whatever was yet to come, I was still learning how to live and why. 
     My life is filled with stories that feed me: some good, some not so good.  Some of these stories may inspire me to act more loving, forgive more easily, or participate more fully, as the storyteller in the Arabian Nights proclaimed.  And yet, as I was recently reminded, and what my own moments of great clarity support:  even the greatest story is not as good as that which lies beyond the reach of any story, that which lies beyond the “I” in the stories, beyond the reach of fear and worry, beyond the reach of all afflicted emotions.  What is that?  Pure awareness –-a state of being that might be described as vibrant still peace –where all that remains is a reverent awe and a whisper of curiosity as to life’s beautiful potential.  Devoid of all stories, life itself is inherently burgeoning and fertile, hot and wholesome.
     Time to cook.
Green Curry Paste
The Whole Chile Pepper Book                                    My adaptations
10 Serrano or Jalapeno chiles, stems removed (heat can be adjusted by reducing the number of chiles)
6 Serranos, 1 large Jalapeno
I play with the amount and kind of chiles I put in my paste and I always taste the chiles to gauge their individual hotness – if I am lacking hotness, I add the seeds too.
(Note: the end next to the stem is the hottest part of a chile)
2 Tbl chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped shallots, or substitute ¼ cup chopped scallions, including the greens
1 Tbl finely chopped fresh ginger
Sometimes I use a little more
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp whole coriander seeds
2 tsp whole caraway seeds
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp ground cumin
I always use whole cumin seeds and double the amount – 2 tsps whole seeds
1 tsp ground nutmeg
I use freshly ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp grated lemon rind
2 to 4 tsp vegetable oil
I use olive oil
Yield:  1 cup
I usually find my batch is more than 1 cup
·      Puree the chiles, garlic, shallots, ginger, and cilantro in 1 Tablespoon oil until it is a smooth paste.  (I usually just use my blender for this.)
·      Grind the seeds and peppercorns.  (I always use my stone mortar and pestle –mmmmm)
·      Add ground seed mixture to paste
·      Add any remaining ingredients (for instance if you had ground cumin or nutmeg)
·      Puree to a thick paste, adding more oil if necessary.
     If you want a yummy recipe to use this paste with, try this one, also from The Whole Chile Pepper Book – you can use whatever protein you want – last time I made the paste I used one half in the below recipe with chicken sausage instead of plain chicken and the next day I used white fish instead of chicken in this recipe.  You could also use just vegetables or vegetables and tofu or another meat substitute to make it purely vegetarian.
Chicken with Green Curry Paste
The Whole Chile Pepper Book                                    My adaptations
4 Serrano or Jalapeno chiles, stems removed, thinly sliced
As much as I love hot food, I usually only add one or two or sometimes no extra chiles, since the paste above has so many . . .
1 cup Green Curry Paste (above)
When I make the Green Curry Paste recipe above, I often split it into enough for two dinners – not sure if I use a whole cup or not
1 Tbl fish sauce
Vegetarians can substitute extra sauce or tamari
1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut milk
1 can
1 ½ lbs chicken, skin removed, cut into 1” strips
I substitute whatever protein I have:  chicken sausage, tofu, fish . . .
1 Tbl sugar
I use sucanat
2 tsp lemon juice
I sometimes use lime juice
½ cup chopped fresh basil
 . . more never hurts
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
I often add additional vegetables to this dish:  onions, bell pepper, zucchini .  .  . whatever I have on hand
I add salty water or chicken broth for a soupier version
·      Heat the curry paste and the fish sauce in one half of the coconut milk. 
·      Add the chicken (protein) and cook until just tender. 
·      Remove the chicken and keep warm (I almost never actually take the chicken out . . .)
·      Stir in the chiles, sugar, lemon juice, and remaining coconut milk.  (I usually taste it here to decide how hot I want it and if I want to add more chiles.)
·      Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce is creamy and thickened. (If I want to make it a little soupier instead of thickened, I sometimes add salty water or chicken broth.)
·      Return the chicken and add the basil. 
·      Cook for additional 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
·      Serve over steamed rice.  (I often serve this in a bowl so that I can scoop up extra sauce and drown my rice a little.)
     Invite a little hot and wholesome into your life today!

1 Comment

Filed under peasant cooking, storytelling, Uncategorized

One Response to Hot and Wholesome: Green Curry Paste

  1. Dave Fletcher

    Great memories! Thanks for posting and for sharing a great weekend with me.

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