Thursday, January 1, 2009

Straying from the Recipe: Southeast Asian Squash Curry

I hung out over the weekend with this guy from North Carolina. His southern manners were ingratiating, but I also attributed to him some stereotypes about southern people: wedded to tradition, unimaginative, and, well, kind of boring. Then we got to talking about cooking. His eyes lit up with a glint of adventurousness, and he put me to shame. His tales of experimenting with ingredients and straying far from recipes made me question my own cooking nature: specifically, how conservative I am in the kitchen. If this hick gets all freaky with his spice rack, why I am such a recipe-clinger?

So the other night, I found myself in a pickle: an interesting recipe for southeast Asian squash curry – and very few of the ingredients in the fridge. Inspired by my laid-back yet daring friend, I threw recipe to the wind.

But even the part of the recipe that I planned on following seemed a bit of a stretch. Squash with fish sauce? Do people from Thailand really eat squash? Despite misgivings, I prepared the ingredients. Then, my substitutions began: I went with leeks in the absence of onions; traded bok choy for spinach, and just to completely fly my foodie freak flag, I threw in turnips. And I put carrots in there too!

I felt alive and free, but then I dumped in too much cinnamon. Not the first time – I think I subconsciously make this blunder sometimes because years ago an ex-girlfriend accused me of having a whole bunch of completely full spice bottles – suggesting that I was spending more time buying my powders than shaking them. Scarred, I now shake vigorously to empty those babies out.

As the food cooked, I took a taste and what stood out was the variety of texture. Many good contrasts between soft and crunchy, particularly enhanced by the bok choy. But, as expected, my enthusiasm with the cinnamon had been a mistake – it gave the dish a sweet earthy taste that reminded of a middle eastern tagine, which detracted from the delicate southeast Asian feel that was already jeopardized by the squash. Thankfully I still had the chili paste and coconut milk, which pushed the taste of the food forcefully in the direction of Bangkok. Still, I tried to compensate for the cinnamon by tripling the amount of fish sauce that the recipe called for, but the cinnamon refused to be quieted. Sweet won over pungent, although the next day when I ate leftovers at work, the burning smell of the fish sauce overwhelmed the guy at the cubicle next to me, forcing him outside for a smoke. You know your dish is smelly when people choose cancer over it.

The highlight of the evening was that the squash worked with fish sauce. And I was also pleased that I refused my last-second impulse to run to the supermarket for cashews. Just before plating my fiery curry, I craved the nuts and wondered how they would even further enhance the mixed textures – but I remembered my southern friend’s rebellious influences and stayed true to my goal of departing from the recipe, which included cashews. That, and plus after I taste-tested the squash in fish sauce, my hunger spiked to a level that it couldn’t be delayed by even the shortest cashew run.

Southeast Asian Squash Curry (from

Active time:20 min
Start to finish:35 min
October 2008
We love the many textures and flavors of this spicy coconut curry with butternut squash, spinach, and cashews. Bottled red curry paste keeps it supermarket-friendly.

1 tablespoon plus 2 tsp vegetable oil, divided
1 1/2 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk (do not stir), divided
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons Thai Kitchen red curry paste
1/3 cup water
1 (2- to 3-inch) cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
5 oz baby spinach (5 cups packed)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, or to taste
1/4 cup salted roasted cashews, chopped
lime wedges

· Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Sauté squash with cumin and 1/4 tsp salt until beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
· Add remaining 2 tsp oil to skillet and cook onion over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup coconut milk from top of can and cook, stirring, until fat starts to separate and look glossy, about 2 minutes. Add curry paste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.
· Add squash, water, cinnamon, cloves, and remaining coconut milk and simmer, covered, until squash is tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook, covered, until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in fish sauce. Sprinkle with cashews.
Serve with: jasmine riceCooks’ note: We’ve also got a web-exclusive recipe using the leftover red curry paste.
Recipe by Maggie Ruggiero
Photography by Romulo Yanes
quick kitchen,
maggie ruggiero
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