Learning to Be Content With the Memories

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carroll and cooper

Just a few weeks ago, my family gathered in Syracuse (my hometown) to raise money for breast cancer research. My oldest sister Carroll, pictured above, was diagnosed with the disease in August. Her three daughters, all grown girls, organized “Team Carroll” and collected pledges to run in the Carol M. Baldwin Run For Their Life race. If you weren’t running, you could cheer runners on as they navigated the course that crisscrossed Syracuse University’s campus. Everyone planned to gather after the race at my other sister Janine’s house. I volunteered to make curry to feed such a large group, a big vat of vegan curry and an equally big vat of Indian chicken curry.

We had hoped Carroll would be there, but as the race approached, she had a terrible reaction to the aggressive doses of chemo that (we hoped) were zapping the cancer. She was rushed to intensive care. On race day, the girls and several other family members braved the elements (no snow, but cold rain) to finish the course. Carroll stayed in the ICU. Everyone gathered post-race at Janine’s, where I like to think the curry was good comfort food.

“Comfort” is a nice thought when someone you love is sick. Since August, when the initial diagnosis was Stage 4 breast cancer that had already metastasized to the bones, lungs and liver, we had all been searching for it. It didn’t seem fair that Carroll, only 55, who lived an exceedingly content and quiet life, never straying far from where she grew up, would be stricken with such an aggressive, insidious disease. Despite the odds, we were optimistic. These days, one can manage cancer for a long time. New drugs and novel treatments are constantly being developed. As long as you keep spirits high, there was a fighting chance, we figured.

It was not to be. Two weeks after race day, Carroll slipped away quickly. It was true to her personality. At our family camp, where our huge boisterous group would gather every Fourth of July, Carroll would often disappear to her cabin while everyone else stayed up for hours around the campfire. She’d be inside, contentedly sipping amaretto and reading a book, while the group animatedly played 20 Questions and other games in the dark.

Grasping that you will never see someone again is not easy. I find myself waking with a jolt in the middle of the night, or during a nap, thinking: “My sister is dead.” And the memories that come back, oddly, are not recent ones, but ones from childhood. I remember the sister who would take me to play pinball at the arcade, whose favorite color was yellow, who had a rainbow comforter and feathered bangs. I remember the time she brought me Chicken McNuggets (my request) when I had the chicken pox. And I remember all the afternoons I’d walk to her house after school, circa 1983, when we’d listen to Genesis’ “That’s All” and eat Doritos.

A few days ago, after her wake and funeral, we gathered again at Janine’s. It felt like someone was missing, something we’ll have to get used to for a long time to come. “I keep thinking she is going to walk through the door,” my brother said.

Friends and relatives had dropped off big vats of comfort food — which in Syracuse, a town founded by Italians, tends to be baked ziti. There was baked ziti made with copious mozzarella (a very stringy affair). Another baked ziti featured, rather daringly, a handful of elbow macaroni. Still another baked ziti had ground beef. It made me smile when I saw that my niece’s friend had dropped off a curry vegetable soup. Comfort food, indeed.

It still doesn’t seem real. I don’t know when it will. I can see her blonde hair and blue-green eyes. I can hear her voice. Maybe that’s how it is. The physical presence is gone, but the memories live on. We’ll always want more. But we’ll need to be content with what we have. My sister knew a lot about being content — it’s quite possibly the one word that best describes her. Perhaps it’s not comfort that we seek, but contentment. I will try to follow her example.  ✤

Loyal Readers Write In!

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So every once and a while at CrackingCurry.com, we open the mailbag and share the copious letters, photos, rave reviews, etc that loyal followers (besides my mom) have sent in. OK, so I don’t get THAT many letters — but I am surprised how many people, much to my delight, send me photos of their meals or anything curry-related. Please keep that coming! You can find all my contact info here.

Recently I heard from three gourmands…the first, of course, being someone who is related to me (if nothing else, I can count on the occasional family member to read this blog). My niece Chelsea DeBaise, a journalist living in Chicago who cleverly captured the handle “cdebaise” on Instagram before I thought to do so, is quickly becoming one of the 12 types of millennials known as a “culinary explorer.” And her exploration has led her (and boyfriend Michael) to curries! I am thrilled to hear they work with both a wok and a crock-pot slow cooker. A few weeks ago she texted: “Wednesday is wok night so Michael and I are trying out some cracking curry tonight!” (Note the use of this blog’s name as a common noun…excellent branding, Chelsea!).

Chelsea attempted my “Simple and Easy Thai Curry” recipe, which is a personal favorite in this household. Here is the photo she Instagrammed:

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From Chelsea: “We substituted snow peas for bok choy, because, well, I had too much bok choy! We had a bok choy and Napa cabbage stir fry appetizer as well. Thanks Colleen, the curry was fantastic!” Well done, Chelsea (and Michael), well done!

RELATED: See how Ivan and Bella made this same recipe. And for more reader-made recipes by Roe, Igor and Christine, see here.

The next reader I was happy to hear from was Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a talented writer (and former co-worker) who lives in Philadelphia. Interestingly, Dinah appears to have run across a curry-related entree while….out to breakfast! Well, perhaps it was brunch:

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Dinah writes to me via Facebook: “Not usually one to post food pics but the curry omelet platter at Cups & Chairs Tea Café deserves a mention. Highly recommended.” So noted, Dinah, and next time I’m in Philly, would love to check it out!

And then most recently, I heard from a sneaker-clad reader named Rod Kurtz, who has walked this blog’s virtual red carpet many a time (see here and here and here), who sent this photo:

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Rod reports this is a new restaurant in the East Village, and may or may not be owned by the same folks who own the intriguingly named “Plump Dumpling.” Rod, who among many things is a small-business consultant, also offered a thought for an additional (sole?) revenue stream for Cracking Curry: Apparel! “Maybe CC should get into the t-shirt business!” he said. Hmm. Food for thought, as they say.

Thank you, Chelsea, Dinah and Rod, for the contributions! Will send you a t-shirt if I ever make them!

Holding Onto Summer….

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Camp curry

From this weekend’s trip to Fire Island National Seashore.

Curry (made in advance) is an excellent meal to bring while camping. I’ve discovered that it reheats well on a camp grill or stove. You can make your curry at home, pack it in a disposable tin and then set the tin on top of the fire. Boom! A hot fragrant meal that is the envy of other campers. Serve over rice, which you can also prepare in advance. (No need to reheat the rice, esp if your curry is bubbling hot from the camp stove, as this one was.)

The recipe I used was my own Easy Indian Curry.

Below, my pal Carolyn and her son enjoy a late October day at the beach. 

Fire island

Stocking Up for the Fall

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Stocked!

It’s harder to stock my cabinet now that I live in the Hamptons…but fortunately I am in the city often enough to swing by Kalustyan’s and Bangkok Center Grocery to pick up fixings. Just makes for more bags on the Jitney!

Curry in the Rockaways

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Thai Rock on Jamaica Bay
Thai Rock in Rockaway, Queens, with views of Jamaica Bay.

There’s a section of New York City that I’ve been fortunate to get to know, thanks to my pal Riva, who loves to surf.

In Rockaway, Queens — which is accessible by subway — you can spend the day at the beach, ride some challenging waves, and then top it off with some delicious food and wine (if you know where to go). Rockaway is a gritty but resilient place. A few years, Superstorm Sandy nearly decimated the place. But it’s bounded back, thanks in large part to the surfer community, which came together post-hurricane to keep the neighborhood afloat. The longtime locals have a lot of stories to tell, that’s for sure, and I’m sure there’s grumbling about the demographic change that’s underfoot. But much like the tides turn, so too is Rockaway….and that’s a good thing.

14435698409_472fe45454On a recent evening, Riva and I left Manhattan by ferry (a soon-to-be discontinued service) — and arrived at B108th in Rockaway right as the sun was going down. We headed to Thai Rock, on a pier overlooking Jamaica Bay. An evening chill descended as it became dark…fortunately, the restaurant had blankets on hand (comfy!), which they handed out to patrons like ourselves, sitting in the outdoor section over the water.

The impressive menu has a number of curry options — I ordered the Pineapple Curry with Shrimp, which came with a nice amount of spice. I liked how they used whole cherry tomatoes, fresh chunks of pineapple, and a bit of basil, bell pepper and mushroom. Delicious!

Truth be told, I had been a bit skeptical about what I’d find in Rockaway, in terms of Thai cuisine. But not only was the meal authentic…so was the feel of the place. It brought back memories of being on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, at a restaurant on a spindly pier. So what if that was New York traffic on the Cross Bay Bridge zipping by — this still felt like a bit of Thailand, in an unexpected place. A big thank you to Riva for introducing me to Thai Rock…and Rockaway!

Below, my entree of Pineapple Curry with Shrimp. Pineapple curry with shrimp

Making Easy & Simple Curry: A Photo Essay

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fab 4

The Fab Four: Palm sugar, fish sauce, oyster sauce and sambal oelek.

My favorite go-to dish is Easy & Simple Curry, which I have made — at this point — probably hundreds of times.

The ingredients are fairly uncomplicated — loads of fresh ginger and garlic sauteed in coconut oil, plus whatever veggies you have in stock (or in the garden!) and any protein you like. I generally make it with shrimp or chicken. To give it a hint of Thai, I use a bit of coconut milk. But the real flavor machines in this dish are pictured above…I refer to them as the Fab Four: Palm sugar, fish sauce, oyster sauce and sambal oelek.

Substitute alert: If you can’t find palm sugar, which is made from the sap of blossoms of palm trees, you could use agave nectar or brown sugar or just plain sugar (in that order of preference). If you can’t find fish sauce, then don’t attempt this dish. If you can’t find oyster sauce, it’s actually less of a deal killer than no fish sauce — but oyster sauce lends a delicious richness to the final product (and besides which, it’s easy to find, so just buy it). If you can’t find sambal oelek, you could use its more popular cousin, sriracha (which is made by the same company, Huy Fong). But please note that sambal oelek is much better for cooking, whereas sriracha is meant to be a condiment.

While I generally use Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce, in part because of its pretty bottle, I recently decided to try an organic version, which is the all-natural Wok Mei oyster sauce pictured above. Jury is still out, and I must experiment some more before proffering my final opinion. (Spoiler alert: I think I still prefer Lee Kum Kee.)

In any event, whichever versions you use, the Fab Four give this dish its beautiful sweet, spicy and salty notes…which make it a very streamlined version of a proper Thai curry.

To make Easy & Simple curry, chop up 5 cloves of garlic and 2-inch piece of ginger, and sautee in coconut oil. Add your fish sauce, oyster sauce, sambal oelek and palm sugar so it looks deliciously thick and dark:

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Next, it’s time to add about 1/3 of a cup of coconut milk (feel free to add a bit more…). If you use canned coconut milk, you can always freeze what you don’t use..

Adding Coconut

Next it’s time to add your bell pepper, which in these photos has been elegantly julienned by the hubs, who is much better at that sort of thing than I am. I usually add my protein (chicken or shrimp) at the same time, as bell pepper takes awhile to steam. Allow to cook for several minutes, stirring frequently.

Adding bell pepper

When you’ve got everything looking pretty good and cooked through, it’s time to add your bok choy…give it a quick stir, then take off the heat.

Adding bok choy

Serve your Easy & Simple curry over jasmine rice…delicious! Finished product and full recipe is below. If you try it, email me a photo (in the unlikely event you’re a random stranger, please email to colleen.site.mail@gmail.com) and I will gladly feature on this blog.

Easy & simple curry

Easy & Simple Curry

2 tbsp oil (I use coconut oil, but you can use any veggie oil)
5-6 cloves garlic (diced)
2-inch piece of ginger (diced)
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1.5 tbsp Sambal Oelek
3/4 tbsb palm sugar
1/3 cup coconut milk (feel free to use a bit more)
3/4 lb shrimp OR 2 chicken breasts, chopped into bite-size pieces
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, julienned
bunch of bok choy, chopped
jasmine rice
(serves 2 people)
Heat the oil and add ginger and garlic, stirring for a minute or so. Add fish sauce, oyster sauce, sambal oelek and palm sugar; stir well. Pour in coconut milk. Bring to boil. Drop in pieces of shrimp or chicken. Add bell pepper. Allow to cook through, stirring frequently. Add bok choy at very end. Serve over jasmine rice. Delicious!

Curry in the Hamptons

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Boa chalkboard

The chalkboard with nightly specials at BOA Thai in Southampton.

Thanks to our recent home purchase, we are now official residents of the Hamptons, something that makes us eligible for beach parking (yay!) and — less exciting — a self-hauler permit at the local trash facility.

My new residency also means I must get up to speed on the ages-old question: “Where’s the best place to eat Thai?”… a question I was asked time and time again in the city. Truth be told, I wind up cooking Thai at home a LOT — in part because I never find great options for dining out. Sure, there’s always a lot of take-out places with delicious food, but do they have enough ambiance for a special occasion? Are they trendy? Usually not, and I’m not sure why. We certainly have enough charming French bistros and cute Italian trattorias…why not more cool Thai eateries?

I’m still looking in the Hamptons for the ultimate Thai experience — and it’s hard to come by. As far as I can tell, there’s a significant lack of options. I suppose the Hamptons isn’t the most diverse place in the world…but with the cosmopolitan crowd that comes here, you’d think someone would demand more fine Asian cuisine options. Someone who wields more power than me, at least.

We did recently find a pretty nice option in Southampton called BOA Thai, which we checked out after a Friday night of PechaKucha at the nearby Parrish Art Musem. The nightly special on the chalkboard, a crispy Roasted Duck Curry, called my name.  Long ago, I tried making this very same dish, which is actually a fusion dish (the crispy duck is Chinese, the curry is Thai)…it was difficult to make but divine. We ordered a dish,  along with larb, the traditional Thai minced meat salad. A photo of both is below…

Hamptons curry

We definitely enjoyed the meal, and the Thai wait staff couldn’t have been nicer. For a summer Friday evening, the place wasn’t super crowded…which is refreshing. As a recent Trip Advisor reviewer said, BOA Thai is not the chicest restaurant in the Hamptons, but it IS good. That about captures it. We’ll be back.

Below, the menu covers at BOA Thai.

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San Francisco Curry

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San Francisco Curry

On a recent vacation to San Francisco, we arrived into the city late after a day in Sonoma, followed by a wander through Muir Woods.

Not wanting to stray far from our hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf, we headed to the Curry Leaf in Russian Hill, a casual place that promised to provide “genuine and authentic Indian and Pakistani cuisine” at reasonable rates. It did, indeed. We tried a few staples (see above), and since it was BYOB, the hubs ran across the street to buy a bottle of beer. We chatted up the friendly owner, who would up sending us over some complimentary desserts. Curry love!

Check out Curry Leaf for an easy meal, the next time you’re in the city by the bay. It’s not full-service, but the restaurant is cuter than most to-go places, and the food is delicious and fragrant. Curry Leaf, 943 Columbus Ave., San Francisco.

Camp Curry

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Camp curry

When you’re sparingly packing a few items to bring with you, on a ferry, to a remote island — what should you bring?

A curry, of course!

Ahead of a recent camping trip to Fire Island with a group of eight, I made my Easy Indian Chicken Curry (who doesn’t like a hot spicy meal, while in the wild?) and poured it into a disposable aluminum pan. It turned out — the pan was a stroke of genius. When we reached the island, we were easily able to heat up the curry at the campsite by starting a fire in a grill, and setting the entire pan on top of the grill. Perfect! Thanks to a quick-witted pal named Carolyn, we also had pre-made heat-and-serve rice (which she buys at Target – see here.)

Because we all brought our appetites, we had this meal paired with some delicious steaks and red wine….a nice way to rough it.

Below, the tarp where we set up our picnic tables and devoured our meals. 

Camp Curry

Hello, Lover (Proper Greeting for Brazilian Curry)

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Brazilian curry

The co-workers and myself recently had lunch at BarBossa, a Brazilian joint in NoLita, and lo and behold – there was a curry on the menu! Shrimp & Avocado Tomato Curry, pictured above. Probably not representative of Brazilian cuisine….but it was nevertheless delicious. I have not thought of adding avocado to a curry before, so thank you, BarBossa, for the inspiration.