Taking a hiatus from my usual spoilsport-y self, I caved into the pressure of Halloween and served a menu built around orange foodstuffs. To start, a persimmon and daikon salad. To end, a kabocha cheesecake. The entrée was considerably more difficult to settle. What meat or fish, besides the obvious choice of salmon, comes in hues of orange? Deliberative indecision turned to panic—the persimmons had been peeled, the cheesecake was biding its time in the fridge, and still no orange entrée of which to speak! Sometimes the best ideas are right under one's nose.
I reached into the freezer and grabbed a few packs of my Thai yellow curry paste, the mildest of the curry pastes stored in my refrigerator. Traditionally, curry paste is made by pounding together aromatics like garlic, shallots, chiles, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime, with ground spices like coriander and cumin. With fewer chilies and more garlic than either the red or green variety, yellow curry paste is gentler on the tongue. In place of the assertive galangal root, ginger is used. And, unlike the red and green, yellow curry paste takes a sizeable dose of ground cinnamon.
Turmeric is responsible for the color of the resulting curry sauce. (While the paste is called yellow, the color actually corresponds to the resulting broth rather than the paste itself, which is ruddy in tone.) We generally find the plant in its ground form, yet turmeric is a root. The interior of the turmeric root is a brilliant shade of orange; the outside looks remarkably similar to the more commonly found ginger. (This comes as no surprise given that turmeric is a member of the ginger family.) Coriander, also known as cilantro, produces the round, beige-colored seeds that are ground and used in many Thai curry pastes. Yellow curry paste happens to employ ground coriander in greater proportions.
Breaking the Coconut
Elementary school sensibilities suggested that mixing my yellow curry paste with enough coconut milk and a touch of red paprika, would produce the Halloween-ready hue. Prior to adding the paste, I performed the all-important act of "cracking the coconut," a process so integral to Thai curries and cuisine in general, that a book by that name has been penned by Thai cooking authority Su-mei Yu.
Coconut milk, made by the repeated boiling and straining of fresh coconut meat with water, serves as both fuel and liquid when cooking Thai curries. The fatty coconut cream that rises to the top of the milk is used along with oil to sauté the curry paste. This process of boiling off the water content in the coconut cream, thereby isolating the fat, is known as "breaking" or "cracking" the coconut. When the curry paste has been sufficiently toasted in the oil and fatty coconut cream, the thinner, more uniform coconut milk is poured into the pot.
More Curry-Making Tips
While curry pastes are traditionally pounded out in a mortar and pestle, using a blender yields a stellar version. The number and kind of ingredients required may seem daunting at first sight, but be flexible in your approach. For instance, if shrimp paste made from fermented shrimp or small fish is not available, use anchovies.
Make the paste in large batches and freeze what you don't use in cubes or little plastic bags. I can toss the chunks of curry paste straight from the freezer into the pot, which makes a Thai curry dish executable in well under half an hour. In fact, Madhur Jaffrey describes having Thai curry paste on hand like storing money in the culinary bank—probably one of the truer observations of kitchen life, next to the "fat is flavor" mantra. (If I've not made my point adequately, consider this: In the time that it takes you to travel to and wait in a Thai restaurant, you could be eating your own curry dish if you have the paste on hand!)
Just Add Lobster
After toasting my yellow curry paste in vegetable oil and coconut cream, I thinned out the sauce with coconut milk and water. Preparing the lobsters was simply a matter of twisting off the tails to quickly dispense with the crustaceans, then removing the gills and chopping each part into smaller sections. As the sections of lobster simmered in the pot of curry broth, I added the tomalley to further enrich the sauce.
The lobster meat, just cooked through with the gentle heat of the liquid, was succulent and tender. Still, it was the powerful flavor of the curry broth that bewitched my senses. The tomalley, along with the shells left intact on the meat, had infused the sauce with the heady perfume of lobster. Sipping the broth, my guests and I groaned audibly for the sheer pleasure of it all.
- 14-ounce can of coconut milk, left undisturbed for several hours
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 tablespoons yellow curry paste
- 1 teaspoon hot curry powder, or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon
- 2 live lobsters, about 1 1/2 pounds each
- 3 to 4 kaffir lime leaves, or 6 basil leaves as a garnish
To form the sauce: Open the can of coconut milk and skim off the top layer of thick cream, about 4 tablespoons worth. Stir the remaining milk to reincorporate the coconut cream.
Pour the oil into a large, nonstick lidded pan and set over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the coconut cream and the yellow curry paste. Stir the paste around until it is lightly browned and the oil has separated from the coconut in the cream. You have just cracked the coconut. Now, add the curry powder and stir a few times.
Add the liquids: the coconut milk and about 1/2 cup of water to thin it out. You can add more or less water, depending on your preference for the consistency. Add salt to taste. Stir and bring to a simmer.
Cover the pot and simmer for another 5 minutes or so over low heat. This may all be done in advance and kept covered for 2 to 3 hours.
To prepare the lobster: Twist off the tail from the head of the body. Then twist off the legs and set aside. Twist off the front claws. Using a cleaver or a heavy knife, hack the claws into 3 sections and set aside. Do the same for the tail, cutting it into 3 or 4 sections. For the head, reach inside and remove the stomach sac. Now split the head into two, lengthwise. Reserve the tomalley in a small bowl.
When you are ready to serve, bring the curry sauce back to a simmer. Put in all the lobster pieces and stir gently. Bring the curry sauce to a simmer and cover the pot, cooking gently for 10 minutes. Occasionally, stir the lobster around and spoon the sauce over the lobster. Simmer just until the lobster meat is cooked through, taking care not to overcook the meat. Towards the last two minutes of cooking, add the tomalley and stir gently.
Chop the kaffir or basil leaves, and add to the pot. Serve immediately.