The cicadas have started falling from the trees. Composition books and glue sticks are stacked high by the door. The calendar, long blank, is freshly graffitied. Summer break's final hours are somehow behind us.
There are a dozen things I'd like to lay down here, but my mind's not on speaking terms with order. Order of the subject-predicate kind, anyway. I suspect I'm not the only one.
We are neck-deep in the late summer jumble, winding down one routine, gearing up for another. I could wait a week for the dust to settle, but where's the fun in that? And the dinner?
A wise soul once told me, some fifteen years back, that good information today is better than perfect information tomorrow. As a person entirely uninclined to such thinking, I've always considered this a radical statement. A radical statement with much to recommend it. So let's get on with the good today, shall we?
:: Certain sandwiches have no business on brown bread, previous allegiances notwithstanding. We are entering high BLT season, which is pretty much a mandate to bake this loaf with all white. Add slabs of tomato, good bacon, a sheaf of leaves, and sidle up to a stack of napkins and happiness.
:: Speaking of leaves, jeepers-creepers, basil. Claudine tipped me off, and I'm pretty well smitten. Our lettuce is always long-gone by tomato time, but the basil's (still) strong, and not only delicious, possibly better.
:: Dear Clay, Paint, Blocks, plus Every Building Material Under the Sun: You've made our summer shine on a regular basis. Consider this your thank you note. Sincerely, Us.
:: Reason #38 to invest in a KitchenAid: the dough hook pulls double-duty as a pirate prosthetic.
:: I've never understood uncooked tomato sauce. Are you not already turning on the stove to boil water? Could I possibly have missed the point more entirely? If you're anywhere near as naïve as I was, dear Luisa will set you straight. I dare you not to get raw-tomato sauce religion.
:: Always say yes to outings. Even if you're inclined to say no. Especially if you're inclined to say no.
:: People of the Book. Beg, buy, borrow a copy. I draw the line at stealing. But only just barely.
:: Odd lots of vegetables are a fact of summer life. Farmer's market leftovers, CSA tidbits, weird garden yields that conform to no recipe. Beginning about now, I routinely open my refrigerator to an optimist's miscellany, a pessimist's produce mess. Two extra ears of corn, a few tired zucchini, plus not quite enough green beans for anything meaningful. Add a pepper whose purpose has long been forgotten, a few carrots rattling around the bottom, and you've the makings for recrimination. Or a one-pot, one-bowl, lite-brite coconut curry. I choose the latter. And recommend it, highly.
A few words about this favorite standby. First, this is no true Thai curry. I've bruised lemongrass, minced galangal, pulverized shrimp paste and brick-red chilis, all in the name of heady, aromatic pastes. It is not so difficult, and so very worth it. It is also, many weeks, beyond my reach. On weeks such as those, weeks such as these, I reach for this lickety-split lovely.
What this is is a tip of the Thai hat, a skittering across, a selective pull. There's the sweet, creamy lush of coconut milk, the salty funk of fish sauce, the mellow glow of red curry, swiped, conveniently, from a jar. Supermarket staples, the lot of them, and so pantry citizens under our roof. A dash of brown sugar, a good hit of lime, and oh, so pleased to meet you, hot-sour-salty-sweet. And this, my friends, is just the bathwater.
What you add to the drink is up to you; what I add has been different, each of two dozen times. There's always protein of some sort or another, seared at the outset in a shimmer of oil. It may come as no surprise that tofu's my preference, soft little pillows against the fresh crunch. That said, I extend this dish's reach in my home by adding tender bite-sized bits of chicken. In practice, I use what I've got on hand; on this particular night, that meant both. The curry paste gets added to the hot oil, to deepen in color and in flavor, followed shortly thereafter by the big white splash. The whole mess then sits stoveside, simmering and tendering, while the real fun begins: the plundering of the vegetable bin.
The list of vegetables below is merely last week's version; yours might bear no resemblance, and that's the beauty. This is one of those wide-open, welcoming dishes that invites whatever vegetables you have on hand. Substitute green beans for the zucchini, leave out the pepper if you haven't got it, swap out squash for the carrots, you get the idea. Just add the firmer veg at the beginning, tip in the tenders toward the end, and keep your cut size consistent to ensure even cooking. It is ecumenical enough to make the year-round, delicious in spring with asparagus and peas, soothing in winter with cubed sweet potatoes plus those tiny canned corn ears my children adore. Also, it's one heckuva fridge-cleaning workhorse.
Oh! The basil. I nearly forgot the basil. What takes this dish right over the top is a generous throw of aromatic thai basil. We have a few plants in the backyard, because I love its intense fragrance so. It's a little exotic, but not terribly: you'll find it at many farmers' markets during late summer, and any Asian grocery, the year round. If you can, scoop some up; if you can't, make it still. It's what I do half the time, anyway. Authentic or no, basil-flecked or otherwise, this is one of those bowls I settle into with a sigh. Spooned over a mound of brown rice, fragrant and soothing and hearty and light, it is very, very good. Which, if not perfect, has much to recommend it.
This dish is a mash-up of two Deborah Madison recipes, a summer squash and corn simmer in coconut milk, and a Bare-Bones Tofu Curry. Both are wonderful, on their own merits. Together, they make me grin, ear to ear. If you don't know her work, do make her acquaintance; you cannot go wrong with any of her books. The spirit of this dish is signature Madison, great economy of technique, grand delivery of flavor. Did I mention the entire thing comes together more quickly than a mediocre pizza will come to your door?
Fish sauce, coconut milk, and red curry paste are widely available in the ethnic section of most major grocers. Thai basil (a.k.a. holy basil) is a gorgeous, aromatic purple-tinged basil, distinct in flavor from the Italian variety. Look for it at late summer farmers' markets or any Asian market, year-round. Curry paste varies widely in zip. I add a mild two teaspoons, to accomodate tender palates. Start small, taste at the end, and increase as desired, for additional heat.
1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1 tub extra-firm tofu, cut into 1" cubes,
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast (approx. 1 pound), cut into 1" bits, optional
1 teaspoon salt
1 15-oz can coconut milk, well-shaken
2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons - 2 tablespoons thai red curry paste
2-3 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 red pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped into 1/2" bits
2 carrots, peeled, halved, and cut into 1/4" moons3 small zucchini, halved, then sliced into 1/4" half-moons
1 large handful green beans, tipped and tailed, and cut into 1/2" lengths
3 corn on the cob, kernels removed
1 bunch scallions sliced, white and pale green only
1 lime, juiced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup thai basil, chopped
additional water, as needed
additional salt/fish sauce and pepper/curry paste, to taste
warm brown or jasmine rice, for serving
In your wok or your largest non-stick skillet, heat oil to a shimmer over high heat. Tip in tofu and/or chicken, season with 1 teaspoon salt, and let sit, undisturbed, several minutes, until your protein of choice is browned on the bottom and releases with little effort. Shake and stir, and let brown on reverse, another several minutes. Add 2 teaspoons red curry paste, and stir gently into protein, allowing it to fry and darken slightly, until fragrant, 30-60 seconds.
Add well-shaken coconut milk, stirring gently to release and incorporate curry paste. Add fish sauce, brown sugar, scallions, and firmer vegetables (carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, green beans), lower heat to low-medium, and simmer, 5 minutes. Add tender veg (zucchini, corn, tomatoes), stir gently, and simmer another 5 minutes. If, after adding the second batch of veg, the pan seems to crowded (i.e. if the liquid seems insufficient to the produce), add 1/4-1/2 cup water, to compensate. After 5 minutes, check vegetables for doneness: you want carrots without any crunch in them, but your veg still vibrant and just-done. Simmer a few minutes further, if needed, but don't walk away; the joy of this dish is in its brightness.
Add juice of one lime, stir, and taste a spoonful, for seasoning. You want a bold, forward balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Add additional fish sauce (or salt), brown sugar, lime and/or curry paste, to taste. (The more vegetables and bits you add, the greater the likelihood you'll need additional seasonings, across the board.)
Stir two-thirds of the chopped cilantro and holy basil into the hot curry. Serve hot, over rice, with additional cilantro and basil atop.