Thursday, May 10, 2007
Thai food with friends
In three weeks, I will be on a plane to Oaxaca, Mexico. By the time I come back in November, two of my best friends will have left New York. Lina is moving to Providence to be with her husband; Leslie is going to grad school in Boston. During the past two years, both of them have been my family here, friends I can admit horrible, embarrassing things to, because I know they love me. For awhile, I felt bitter about losing my friends, but now, I feel lucky about the time we had together. We met in high school, went to different colleges in the Northeast, and both of them having serious wanderlust, there have been years where one is in Haiti, another in Paris, then in Italy, then in Mexico. We never expected to live in the same city again, all at the same time.
In addition to all the substantive, meaningful ways they are wonderful friends, they are also good people to have over for dinner. I can feel free to experiment, I can feel free to say, "Fuck it," at the last minute and get take-out. And if I do cook, I know they will eat with gusto.
Last night, we gathered at my place for a casual Thai dinner. In planning the menu, I started with one of my staples, Thai green curry made with store-bought green curry paste. Some of my friends in San Francisco took a beginner's Thai cooking class with Kasma Loha-unchit, and when they shared what they had learned about making green curry, I was amazed at how much more intense and bright the flavors were than 90% of the green curries I've had in restaurants.
In the beginner's class, Kasma just recommends certain brands; the more advanced classes learn how to make the pastes from scratch. I love her strong, opnionated tone. It's very comforting when you're staring at a shelf of products in an unfamiliar language.
The recipe for green curry is very simple and adaptable. I've substituted fish for pork, and last night, I substituted DiPaola's turkey thighs which were in my freezer. Sometimes, I use eggplant and zucchini, sometimes I add green beans, whatever vegetables look good and fresh. The key, I think, is to follow the steps at the beginning: frying up the cream of the coconut milk first until the oil bubbles at the edges and separates and frying the curry paste in the coconut cream to release the fragrant flavors. My friends emphasized tasting as we went along, and it's a fascinating way to see how the flavors balance and change as each ingredient is added. When you first fry up the curry paste, it should be intensely flavored and too salty. When you add the palm sugar (I used regular sugar last night), the curry almost seems to get spicier because it takes on a different note. Adding the slivered Thai chilis at the end adds another dimension to the spiciness. It's amazing how many different ways a sauce can be hot.
For a long time, I was intimidated by Thai food because the unfamiliar ingredients just overwhelmed me. But once you buy the staples, most of them keep very well, and Thai green curry easily becomes something you can whip up on a weeknight with stuff that's already in your kitchen. In New York, the Thai grocer at Mosco St. and Mott St. in Chinatown is wonderful. It's a small store, packed with almost all of Kasma's recommended brands, as well as fresh ingredients like Thai basil, the adorable round Thai green eggplants, Thai chilis, lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. They're also very nice. (And you can get 5 dumplings for $1 at Fried Dumpling next door.)
As I walked back to the office through Chinatown, I started to imagine other dishes I could add to our dinner. I stopped at one of the fish markets on Canal and bought a pound of squid. Calamari is cheap, delicious, and so much easier to cook than you would think, and it freezes well, too. I looked at this recipe and that one, and then just riffed on them. I sliced up the squid, prepped all the ingredients, and sauteed it with some fish sauce, chopped ginger, chopped garlic, slivered Thai chilis, and thinly sliced red onion right after the girls walked in, then dressed it with lime juice on a bed of mint.
I also had a big bag of green beans in the fridge, and found this easy recipe online, which basically just called for a big dab of red curry paste. Looking at the recipe now, I see I forgot to add the sugar. Oops. I thought something was missing.
Leslie brought beer, Lina brought strawberries and passionfruit sorbet. I cut up some mangos, and we just sat and talked about our day and funny memories and how we would love to live in a commune together and trips we might take next year. Nothing out of the ordinary, and exactly what I love about our friendship.