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building a better pantry: homemade green and red curry paste

When John and I first met, one of the things that impressed me the most about him was his skill level in the kitchen. I grew up in a very traditional southern family in which the women were the cooks. Then, I dated a few guys who would cook, but more to the tune of instant mashed potatoes and haphazard stir frys than boeuf bourguignon.

But John was different. For one of our first meals together, he made coq au vin complete with those adorable pearl onions and hours of slow simmering. Then, he made his favorite chili for me, and he even ground his own chili powder. But one of my fondest memories of those early days in the kitchen together was when he made a real Thai curry for me, and not with curry paste from a container that had been lurking in the back of the fridge for months. He made homemade curry paste. That, my friends, is dedication to the craft.

I realize how easy store-bought curry paste is, but to be honest, after having curry made with homemade curry paste, I don't think I can go back. And though making it yourself takes some time and ingredient-sleuthing, a batch of the homemade stuff not only tastes better, but it will keep for a long time in the freezer. Think of this as an essential pantry item for the curry lover.

Some advice: find a good Asian supermarket. In all likelihood, it will carry all the ingredients you need to make this recipe. Pretty much every large-ish city will have a good Asian supermarket. Often, even if they don't have some of the ingredients in a fresh form (I'm thinking specifically of fresh galangal and fresh turmeric), they will have them in the freezer section.

Don't be scared of the shrimp paste. It's kind of gross looking, and it smells pretty fetid, but it's an essential ingredient in authentic Thai curry paste. Once it's incorporated into the paste, you won't be able to taste it--it simply adds lots of umami. Oh, and even though you don't use much of it in the paste, it keeps forever in the fridge, so you'll have it for future batches of curry paste. If you are vegetarian or vegan or just can't bear the thought of using this stuff in your curry paste, feel free to leave it out.

As for the chiles, be sure to take a little nibble of one of the green chiles before making the paste. Chiles can vary a lot in spiciness. The only way to know what you're getting into is by tasting them. We love very spicy curry paste, so we usually leave all the seeds in our green chiles, but depending on your heat tolerance, you can remove all the seeds or only the seeds from half of the chiles. For red curry paste, we recommend removing at least some of the seeds--say, from 1/4 to 1/2 of the chiles.

Finally, we like to freeze the paste in ice cube trays, then pop out the cubes and store in zip-top bags in the freezer. They keep really well this way, and because they thaw quickly, you can just throw them into the pan frozen.

Other spicy things you might enjoy: Pumpkin Curry, Tomato Chickpea Curry, Dal

Green and red curry paste
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Combine in a small, dry skillet over medium heat:
           2 tablespoons coriander seeds
           1 tablespoon cumin seeds
           1 tablespoon white peppercorns

Toast until the spices are fragrant and the white peppercorns are beginning to get a little color, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Combine the cooled, toasted spices in a blender or food processor. If you're using a blender along with:
           8 ounces green Thai chiles (or serranos), partially seeded and chopped
           4 to 5 large shallots (about 12 ounces), peeled and chopped
           3 ounces coriander root (or one bunch of cilantro, leaves and stems)
           1/4 cup peeled and chopped galangal root (alternatively, you may use fresh ginger)
           3 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh turmeric root (do not substitute an equal amount of powdered turmeric--if you can't find fresh, you may use up to 1 teaspoon powdered)
           2 stalks lemongrass, tender bottom part only, chopped
           3 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves (or the zest of 3 limes), chopped
           2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
           1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
           (1 tablespoon shrimp paste)

Put the lighter ingredients, like cilantro, in first and the heavier ingredients on top.
As you purée the ingredients, the shallots and garlic will release a lot of moisture, but the mixture will still be fairly dry. With this in mind, be sure to use your blender's tamper to help blend the ingredients evenly. If using a food processor, scrape down the bowl regularly to ensure a smooth paste.
Blend until homogenous and fairly smooth. If desired, pack the paste into ice cube trays to freeze. Pop out the frozen cubes and store in a zipper-top bag. You can also store some of the fresh paste in a container in the refrigerator, but be sure to use it within two weeks.
When you use the curry paste, start with one frozen cube (or about 2 tablespoons fresh paste) for a curry that will generously feed two people. This will make a moderately spicy, deeply flavorful curry. If you like very spicy curries, you may want to use up to two frozen cubes (or about 1/4 cup fresh paste). Start small and work your way up.
To get the best flavor from your homemade curry paste, fry it in a couple tablespoons of coconut milk before adding other ingredients.

Red Curry Paste

To make red curry paste, use 2 ounces dried red Thai chiles in place of the green chiles. Depending on your heat tolerance, remove the seeds from 1/4 to 1/2 of the chiles, then soak in hot water for one hour. Drain the chiles before adding them to the blender.

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