Previously, we asked chefs around the country how they slip curry powder into everything from apple butter to cake. Today we're talking about curry paste—red, green, yellow, and otherwise—one of our favorite flavor bases around, and one of the most versatile. Whether you make it yourself or buy a quality brand (Thai brands Maesri and Mae Ploy are worth seeking out), here are seven ideas for the stuff from experts around the country.
A Deconstructed Curry Paste Base
Amanda Cohen has received numerous accolades for her vegetarian cuisine at New York's Dirt Candy, including a glowing two-star review in the New York Times, a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod (one of only two vegetarian restaurants recognized by the guide), and a Top 10 best vegetarian restaurant in America from Food & Wine. Cohen is also author of the award-winning Dirt Candy: A Cookbook. The East Village location of Dirt Candy closed on August 30th and will reopen this fall in a larger and more accommodating space on the Lower East Side.
We take galangal, lemongrass, ginger, chili peppers (different ones depending on what we're doing: red or green chilies, habaneros, it doesn't stay traditional), Thai lime leaves, lime zest, and garlic, then blend them all that together, and use it as the base for other sauces. It's basically a curry paste with all the aromatics and none of the herbs.
Most often we'll then take green herbs like Thai basil, cilantro, basil, parsley, and blanch and purée them into their own sauce. So then we have two sauces going next to each other, instead of blending them into a Thai green curry paste. If you have the base you can make so many green options and, since we've now broken up the flavors, we can use the curry paste in unusual ways.
I love how it's so savory and intense, so we often pair it with sweeter vegetables, like a beet dish paired with the curry sauce. You'd think instinctually, "Ugh, beets and curry, does that work?" It does. We roast the beets with salt so that you have a bit of savory on top of savory, but even when they're really sweet they pair really well; a fiery heat with the sweetness, instead of coconut milk to temper the heat like you normally would. We've also done it with grilled butternut squash, so you get the sweetness of the squash.
And you can freeze the whole thing! I don't think we've made less than a pint, which is a lot, since we only use a few tablespoons for four to five servings, so if you make it in a batch you can freeze it and then, when you want to add punch to a sauce, you have this nice curry paste starter.
Curry Paste Salsas
Julian Medina is renowned in New York for the ways he teases Mexican and Latin flavors at his Toloache restaurants. Richard Sandoval met a young Medina in Mexico City years ago and, impressed with his energy and vision, invited him to relocate to New York to work in one of his restaurants. Medina quickly became his protégé, and it wasn't long before he started building an empire of his own. His latest opening is Tacuba in Astoria, Queens.
I use a lot of red and green curry paste to make sauces with Mexican chilies; curry already has a pungent flavor, so the chilies marry the flavors well. And since most dried chili powders are too spicy, the pungent flavor of the curry combines to make more flavor with less heat.
In Mexico we use dried chilies that are rehydrated to make salsa, so here we use the dried chili paste as well to bring more to the salsa. One of the sauces I love is curry paste, achiote paste, habanero, and coconut milk. It's a little spicy, a little sour, and the cinnamon and cumin from the achiote gets pulled out, all enhanced by the curry flavor.
Curry Fried Rice Balls
Quealy Watson is the executive chef and partner of Hot Joy in San Antonio, which Bon Appetit claimed for a spot on their Hot 10 list of 2014. There he marries common ingredients—Fritos and fried rice—with full-flavored touches from Sichuan, Mongolia, and beyond.
My fiancé lived in Thailand for six years and got me hooked this crispy rice ball salad.
You take cooked rice, mix it with massaman curry paste, and then taste to see if it needs a tiny bit of salt (that will depend on your brand of paste).
Roll the mixture into balls, put them on a sheet tray, and refrigerate them overnight to dry out the outsides. Then fry them in 400°F oil. Some people fry them at a lower temperature for a longer time so the oil has a longer time to crisp up the inside too, but we fry really fast so the balls crisp on the outside and are almost steamed on the inside. Let the balls cool a bit, then break them in half and toss them with anything you would find in a Thai salad—cilantro, mint, basil, sliced red onions, shredded cabbage, and fish sauce. You can reinforce the rice flavor with toasted rice powder or crispy garlic if you want, but you have excellent texture already.
We use a lot of both dried curry and curry paste, since Jean-Georges had a French Thai restaurant where there was always a lot of curry in the house. I make sugar syrup with lime juice, sugar, and a small amount of yellow curry paste, so you end up with a spiced syrup with a little acidity. I drizzle that over coconut tapioca for the classic flavors of curry and coconut; the coconut is fatty and sweet, and you get a little heat from the curry paste, overall an interesting flavor.
Chicago's chef Jonathan Zaragoza makes classic Mexican cuisine that we can't get enough of. He's big into the local gardening scene, too, growing massive amounts of fresh produce that make it directly into the kitchens of Birrieria Zaragoza and (up until recently) Masa Azul.
There are similarities between an Indian curry sauce and Mexican mole; they're super loud in terms of flavor on the palate. I make a Mexican curry with coriander, cloves, cinnamon, cilantro, cumin, and lots of garlic, and fold it into Mexican sour cream (crema is like crème fraîche but with a little less acidity and not such a gooey texture). I'll marinade some fish in there, and then grill it. So it's like a yogurt-marinade feel that's common in India. It gets nice grill marks from the milk proteins and sugars, but you don't get creaminess, just acidity from the sour cream, so the spices come through great as well.
At Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, KY, executive chef Levon Wallace crafts a seasonally inspired menu that references the culinary traditions of the American South.
Rub curry paste on raw fish and let it sit for a day or two before gently rinsing it off, then cook as you normally would. You end up with this kind of intensified curry fragrance or perfume on your fish, rather than just adding it to your curry pot with coconut milk.
A Quick Chicken Dinner
Chef Jonathan Benno worked in high positions at such esteemed restaurants as Daniel, Craft, The French Laundry, and Per Se before opening Lincoln Ristorante in the heart of New York's Lincoln Center, where his Italian cuisine is familiar and comforting, yet highly refined and inventive.
Staff meal's always challenge since you want to do something wholesome and satisfying, but you only have a little time. So for a good, quick family meal we'll roast off chicken legs, then take Uncle Ben's rice—a simple ratio of two parts water to one part rice—whisk green Thai curry paste into the water, then pour it over the rice, and layer the chicken on top of it. Then we chop up mint and cilantro and throw it on top when it comes out of the oven, and it's a one-pot family meal. It's really satisfying for how quick it is, so much so that I'll make it at home, too.