At times, I feel a bit like I’m living in a glass house here at Chautauqua. If I keep my blinds open, tourists tromping up and down the street can peer inside and see precisely what I’m doing. On warm days, when I read on the screen porch, I can watch vehicles jockeying for parking positions. But that’s what I get for choosing to live at a National Historic Landmark.
I’m not complaining. The beauty here (beyond those Flatirons flanking the park) lies within the people and their talents. Every week, the Chautauqua Residency Program offers cultural and recreational events – hikes, lectures, wine tastings, readings and the like. One resident has singlehandedly organized a regular foreign film screening. Rent a cottage at Chautauqua, and you’ll never have an empty calendar.
So last Thursday, I gave an Asian cooking demonstration and discussion about the extensive health benefits of a diet heavy on Asian herbs and spices. The presentation stemmed from an article I wrote two years ago for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Most recently it was reprinted in Fah Thai. Scroll through that list of ingredients and you’ll see how much medicine is packed inside the kitchen pantry. Garlic, onions, basil, turmeric, lemongrass, cinnamon, cloves, cilantro, chile—they and their brethren know how to fight cancer, diabetes, heart disease and inflammation. Ayurvedic medicine understands this.
I began the demonstration with an explanation of Lao jaeow, which comes in so many healthy variations for so many meals. And then we moved into a basic red Thai curry, made from scratch (well… I had started the pounding at home, lest we spend 30 minutes working up a sweat). The recipe draws heavily from one I learned at Sompon Nabnian’s Master Class a few years ago. (Funny, I discovered one of my neighbors has a life-long dream to attend Sompon’s cooking classes.) To his paste, I added a couple of toasted dry spices (cumin, star anise) as recommended by Pip at The Thai House. Her curry hit every corner of my mouth with bright and dark, deep and light spices when I first made it. I distinctly remember it years afterward.
The photo above comes from a test curry I prepared at home in New Mexico late last month. In that dish, I used cubed pork first marinated in garlic, fish sauce and a smidgen of palm sugar. However, I used only vegetables in the Chautauqua demonstration because I figured there might be a few non-meat-eating attendees. Served with brown jasmine rice, I’ve found this to be an exceptionally warming dish on a brisk autumn night. I’m calling it Down-Home Red Thai Curry—partially because of its rugged appearance. In the demo, we did not pound the paste to the consistency of smooth “elephant poo” as my instructors would recommend. It was a bit chunky. But that’s perfectly OK. It resembled the curries I’ve eaten beside the cooking fires in village homes across Southeast Asia’s northern hills. You will notice several substitutions in the recipe as well. As I noted during the demonstration, many cooks and food writers like to talk about “authenticity” in recipes. But in my experience, across rural Asia, “authentic” is using what’s at hand. Village cooks never work from written recipes, and their dishes vary slightly from day to day as the seasons change and their gardens shift. The most authentic Asian cooks I know are innovators and entrepreneurs.
Down-Home Thai Red Curry
Red Curry Paste Ingredients:
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted until brown
2 cardamom pods, toasted until brown
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted until brown
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 big, red dried chiles, seeds removed and soaked in water, then chopped*
1 star anise
1 teaspoon Chinese keys (we didn’t have, so we substituted ginger)
2 teaspoons lemongrass, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kaffir lime peel, chopped (didn’t have, substituted lime juice)
1 tablespoon coriander root, chopped (didn’t have, substituted cilantro leaf)
3 tablespoons shallots
3 tablespoons garlic
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
1/2 teaspoon fresh turmeric, chopped (can substitute powdered)
10 hot red bird’s eye chiles*
1 can coconut cream (or milk, if cream is not available)
1 pound of pork, cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 handful of mushrooms, roughly cut
1 bell pepper, sliced
Other vegetables of your choice
Fish sauce for taste
Palm sugar for taste (can substitute brown sugar)
Lime juice for taste
Fresh cilantro for garnish
*Thai chiles were not available, so I used what I have locally: three large dried red New Mexico chiles and 7 dried red Mexican chiles de arbol. Use what you have and experiment to find the heat level you prefer.
Pound the dry ingredients using a mortar and pestle. Then add fresh ingredients and pound until smooth (this can take half an hour or more). You can use a food processor if you prefer. Set aside. If wrapped tightly, the paste can be refrigerated for a week or more.
If using pork, marinate in fish sauce, garlic and palm sugar if you desire.
Put 1 cup coconut cream (or milk) into a wok over medium heat and add a healthy scoop of the curry paste. Simmer and stir continuously until the cream has an oily sheen. When you fry a curry paste in fresh coconut cream, the coconut will separate. Note, however, that you will not achieve this effect using canned coconut with additives. You will be able to smell the flavors of the curry paste as they are released through frying. Do not burn.
Add the pork and cook until tender.
Add vegetables and remaining coconut (and more curry paste if the mixture needs more heat or spice). Simmer gently until the flavors have mingled. You want a balance of salty, sweet, hot and tangy. Add fish sauce, lime and/or palm sugar for the desired flavor. Serve with steamed rice and top with fresh cilantro.