Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thai Pumpkin Curry: The Results and Modified Recipes

Check out this recipe on my new and improved website:

The Process
Being relatively unexperienced in Thai cooking, I tried to do a lot of research as I made this recipe. First of all, curry paste from scratch confused me because there was no curry powder in the ingredient list. Then I learned (a little late in life) that curry powder is not actually a base ingredient-- it is a blend. There is no such thing as a curry plant (oops), and when you look up what is actually in a Thai curry powder product, there is a lot of the same stuff that I used in my fresh paste. The word curry, according the Henry Yule Hobson-Jobson Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, is derived from the Tamil word kari, meaning "sauce." So there you have it... curry is, in the simplest terms I can derive from my gastrolinguistic field trip, a sauce made with ingredients from South-Asian countries.

Since I have you hooked with my fancy words (I thought I invented the word gastrolinguistic, but when I checked to see if anyone else had used it, Google showed 144 hits. Still semi-original, I guess, in a world of 7 billion people), I would like to take this moment to share my thoughts on Wikipedia.
*Skip to "The Verdict" if you don't care about my soapbox ramblings. I won't be offended.

You see, when I am not memorizing, cooking, and blogging I actually have a job, which for the past 4 years has been teaching middle and high schoolers in a NYC public school. I love my students, but I want to pull my hair out every time I see someone cite Google or Wikipedia on their research projects. On the flip side, however, I get irritated when people say that Wikipedia is completely unreliable and has no business in the classroom. Why?

  1. First of all, those people would be lying if they said they had never consulted Wikipedia. I don't buy it, and I don't like hypocrisy.
  2. Second of all, Wikipedia has been under the microscope so much that it is now probably better monitored than many other websites (I have no stats to back this up, but it is a logical assumption).
  3. Finally, Wikipedia has these beautiful gems called citations, which lead you to a (possibly) more reputable website that can then be cited with much pride. My entire first paragraph about the origins of curry led me to the University of Chicago website and the esteemed linguistic site, Ethnologue. But guess where my search began? Click for a not-so-surprising answer.

I guess I can conclude these musings with this: Wikipedia is real, relevant, and often reliable. People who care deeply about a topic write in, get approved, and back up what they write with references. While I cringe at the thought that a student would take Wikipedia as inerrant truth (much like I would cringe if they cited their friend or their uncle as an expert source in a research paper), I also am grateful for the availability of a resource that puts unknown topics into user-friendlier words and guides learners to the wealth of texts that are out there. Like with any tool, having it is great, but knowing how to use it well is invaluable.

The Verdict:
This recipe was one of my absolute favorites! I would make it again and again, and I am already thinking of a way to make it year-round with seasonal produce (cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, potato, chick pea... apple?). I am looking forward to making some more curry paste and freezing it in cubes for quick use in the future. 

Since the sauce cooks for long enough that the pumpkin gets pretty soft, I highly recommend cooking your rice a bit al dente. This will add the textural component that the sauce lacks on its own.

Finally, the Shrimp Lettuce Wraps were a huge hit, so I am going to link that recipe again even though it was not the one I memorized. It was the perfect addition of crunch, coolness, and protein to complement a warm vegetable entree. Definitely chop everything up, and mix in the sauce at the very end so they don't get soggy.

A kaffir lime leaf makes a nice garnish for the final fall entree
The Modified Recipe: Vegetarian Pumpkin Curry, adapted from Thai Table
Yield: 8 servings
  • 2 chile peppers (make your spiciness decision here)*
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 8-10 kaffir lime leaves*
  • 4 lb. pumpkin (the eating, not the decorative kind)*
  • 6-8 sprigs Thai basil*
  • 1 cup water
  • 2-4 tbsp. vegetarian red curry paste (see recipe below)
  • Slice pumpkin open and remove seeds.*
  • Cut the pumpkin into chunks and cut off the peel.
  • Cut the pumpkin flesh into 1 1/2 inch cubes.
  • Remove basil and kaffir lime leaves from stem.
  • Julienne red chili pepper.
  • Pour half of the coconut milk into a pot over medium heat. 
  • Add the red curry paste and mix it well, stirring frequently.
  • Add the pumpkin and kaffir lime leaves and stir to coat with curry sauce.
  • Add the rest of the coconut milk and water.
  • Season gradually with salt, tasting frequently (the curry paste provides plenty of salt, so you don't want to add too much)
  • Simmer the pumpkin until soft, about 15 minutes, and longer if you want a thicker curry.
  • Add Thai basil and sliced chile and remove the kaffir lime leaves.
  • Serve hot with rice.
Letting the sauce heat up with kaffir lime leaves in it
is a great way to infuse the leaves' flavor into the finished product
(much like bay leaves in Italian cooking) 
Evolution of Pumpkin, Stage 1
(make sure it gets coated by the sauce) 
Evolution of Pumpkin, Stage 2
(starting to soften as the sauce thickens)
Evolution of Pumpkin, Final Stage
(nice and soft, slightly integrated into the sauce)
The Other Modified Recipe: Vegetarian Red Curry Paste, adapted from Thai Table
Yield: 3/4 cup
  • 4-5 dried whole chiles (make your spiciness decision here)*
  • 1/2 cup shallots, peeled
  • 1/4 cup garlic, peeled
  • 3-4 tbsp lemongrass, chopped finely
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp galangal (ginger works too)
  • 1 tbsp cilantro root (the stem can work too, but it is a little stronger)
  • 1 tbsp coriander
  • 1 tbsp kaffir lime zest (normal lime is acceptable also)
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
The curry paste line-up (from 12:00):
shallots, ginger, cilantro root, salt, lime zest, coriander, cumin,
lemongrass, ancho chile, garlic (just missing the pepper)
  • Soak chiles for 10 minutes until soft. Remove the stem and seeds. Squeeze out water.
  • Add lemongrass pieces to a food processor. Pulse until minced.*
  • Add all ingredients to a food processor (or keep it traditional with a mortar and pestle) and blend until they become a firm, red-orange paste.
  • To save for later, you can refrigerate for a few weeks or freeze for up to a year.
Before the ride
After the ride- you want a nice, dry, pasty paste.
No juice.
  • Choosing fresh chiles for the main dish: Since the chiles used in the final dish are practically raw (only staying in the pan for 3 minutes or so), you will want to ensure that you choose a chile that fits the spice tolerance of your guests. I think I handle heat worse than anyone else in my apartment, so I kept it mild with a cherry pepper. It has a color and flavor resembling a red bell pepper, but it's slightly more potent and less sweet. With the sweetness of the coconut milk and pumpkin meat, I wanted to avoid any more or the same flavor profile. I also bought a jalapeño, but I got too scared to include it. An option for a middle ground that is to put large chunks of jalapeño (seed free, of course) in the coconut milk as it is heating. With frequent taste tests, remove the jalapeño just before it gets to the spice level you want. The flavor will consolidate as the sauce thickens, and you won't risk a spice attack on your taste buds by accidentally chomping on a piece of chile.
Cherry Pepper-- not too hot, not too sweet
  • Kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil: While these two ingredients usually require a specialty store to find fresh, they are available dried at Whole Foods and other markets with a comprehensive Asian section. I soaked my lime leaves in water for about 10 minutes before adding them to the recipe, but I still removed them after letting their flavor infuse the curry because they were a bit too tough. I also bought dried Thai basil, which I crumbled between my fingers before adding to the curry. Oddly enough, I kind of wish I had used a mixture of fresh (regular) basil and a tiny bit of mint to replace Thai basil rather than using a dried product, but I'll save that substitution for next time.
  • Choosing a pumpkin: Any pumpkin that is not labeled "decorative" is fair game for this recipe, as is acorn squash or any other firm-fleshed orange winter squash. Just weigh it to ensure you'll have enough meat. Pumpkin meat is also available freshly packaged at most grocery stores this time of year (usually on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic wrap-- waste alert!). The benefit of using a whole pumpkin is that you can decorate it beforehand. Also, you can save the seeds (see the next tip).
  • Prepping your pumpkin: I could not have made this recipe without my roommate's help! He prepped the entire pumpkin: removing the stem (aka: making a hat), scooping out the pulp and seeds, washing the seeds so we could roast them (wasting pumpkin seeds is a sin), cutting the peel off, and cutting the flesh into chunks to use in the recipe. It's a lot of work, but he did it like a boss!
"Happy Halloween, m'lady!" (Get it? He's tipping his hat)
An ice cream scoop is a nice way to get the pulp
out of a pumpkin because of the sharper edges.
All of this came from the one little pumpkin
Never waste pumpkin seeds.
Wash, dry, oil, salt, and bake at 375° for 25 min.
Check on them frequently.
  • Choosing dried chiles for the curry paste: I was hoping to find dried Thai chiles at the market to make this a true Thai curry paste, but since they were nowhere to be found I took a stroll to the Mexican section and found a treasure trove of dried chiles. I opted for ancho chiles, which are quite mild but have a nice deep flavor. Again, this is where you get to pick the spice level of your meal, so choose wisely. The bigger the chile, the fewer you need, so I only used 2 ancho chiles in my curry paste. If I had chosen smaller ones, I definitely would have used more. You basically want 1/3 cup once they are soaked, squeezed, and chopped.
Ancho Chiles taking a bath
  • What to do about lemongrass: Having never cooked with lemongrass before (but knowing the flavor well), I was terrified about how tough and fibrous it was. It was nearly impossible to cut through the pinky-sized core, and when I tasted a tiny piece, I felt like I was chewing through twine. I started to imagine that a dinner guest would get a piece that the food processor missed and be turned off from the food, so I decided to give the lemongrass its own private spin in the food processor. Once it looked minced, I then added the rest of the ingredients. The process (and results) were literally very smooth.

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