Finally! Numbing Spices

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I don’t claim to know anything about Chinese cuisine, which is why it’s taken me so long to know the awesomeness that is Szechuan peppercorns.

I first was exposed to these delicious pink berries while ordering take-out lunch at Heavenly Bamboo, near my former office in Midtown Manhattan. I’d gobble down the “chicken with chili pepper” dish, not knowing what spice was making my lips delightfully numb. A year or so later, while dining with friends at Yunnan Kitchen, I discovered it was something aptly called “numbing spices.” More research revealed that it was specifically Szechuan peppercorn, which is not actually a pepper but a dried berry (pictured above) of a tree related to the prickly ash. When combined with chile peppers, Szechuan peppercorns produce a hot tingling effect in your mouth — making you reach for more even as you lose feeling in your lips and tongue!

I still did nothing in particular with this information until stumbling across this recipe in the New York Times, Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry, which calls for Szechuan peppercorns. Truth be told, the recipe isn’t the greatest….when I tried making it, I was disappointed in the lack of punch (next time: add MORE Szechuan peppercorns and chile peppers). But I’m glad the recipe prompted me to search out Szechuan peppercorns, which I discovered at my trusty Kalustyan’s on Lexington (at 28th). I’ll need to experiment more before posting a recipe. But in the meanwhile, if you haven’t already…search out restaurants that serve dishes with Szechuan peppercorns, and give them a try. You’ll be hooked!

A Brand New Glorious Day

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New growth!

It’s been a long cold winter. Ask any New Yorker. Ask anyone on the East Coast. Ask….well, pretty much anyone, anywhere.

On top of the heavy snowfalls, crippling ice storms and polar vortexes (vorti?), we’ve also had to deal with super-dry conditions inside our homes. My radiator? It’s been on full blast for much of the recent cold months. There is nothing like the comforting “hiss” of a radiator on a cold wintry evening. But that same heat also steals moisture from the air (just ask my skin) — and, as it turns out, really kills my plants pretty quickly.

I’m usually mindful about turning the radiator off when I leave our apartment….but recently, I apparently forgot, a few times in a row. I also simultaneously forgot to water my beloved kaffir lime tree. The result? All the leaves curled up and withered. Even worse, when I moved the plant, the dead leaves fell to the floor, leaving nothing but bare pitiful branches. Disaster!

I watered the dead-looking plant, turned off the radiator and left it for a few days. Could it possibly make a comeback?

The answer: Yes. Lo and behold, I returned home one evening to see the tiny start of new leaves on the bare branches, little green things that bore the promise of life. Within a few days, it looked like the photo at the top of this post. And by last week, the plant was well on its way (see photo directly below). Today, as temperatures hover in the 70s in New York, my kaffir lime tree is sitting on the fire escape, enjoying a new lease on life. Aren’t we all!

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My kaffir lime tree and its fresh leaves, enjoying balmy weather in NYC.

Enjoying the fire escape!

Spotted Near Union Square: Galangal

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Galangal at whole foods

Whenever I see a mainstream grocery store carrying fresh ingredients used for Asian dishes, I always have to give them a little shout-out. (For instance, please see my previous coverage of coriander roots at Citarella.)

Last weekend, I spotted this beautiful basket of galangal at the Whole Foods near New York’s Union Square. Galangal, for the uninitiated, is something like ginger — but more potent, with an almost eucalyptus-like flavor and scent. See a comparison of galangal and ginger here. I use galangal for my curry pastes, and normally need to trek down to Chinatown to buy it. Not this time.

Keep up the good work, Whole Foods!

Curry Courtesy of Wegmans

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Erin Kyle curry

Erin and Kyle’s curry, made with a little help from Wegmans. 

I am from Upstate New York, which means I know Wegmans. It’s a blessing and a curse. When you grow up with Wegmans, no other grocery store can possibly compare. You can move to a big city like New York, home to an array of famous markets…and yet, something is missing. People ask, “Oh, Wegmans…is it like Whole Foods? Trader Joe’s? Fairway?” No. Wegmans is more than a grocery store. It is an experience.

All of this is to say, I am not surprised that the inimitable Wegmans has the good sense to supply curry sauces that are apparently delicious. I do not know this from personal experience as — rather tragically — I do not live near a Wegmans now. (Greenwich Village has many things, but not a Wegmans.)

But, my niece Erin and her significant other Kyle, who recently bought a home together in the hills near Syracuse, are frequent Wegmans shoppers. They recently made this dish, pictured above, using Wegmans’ “Mild Curry Simmer Sauce,” with chicken and white beans over rice, with a side of string beans and broccoli. (Chef Kyle did the cooking.) “We’re not experts but it’s very delicious,” Erin said. “Especially after a full day of work and a night class for me.”

More investigation reveals that Wegmans (of course!) has its own line of curry sauces….including a refrigerated version of Thai red curry sauce. Many grocery stores carry heavily preserved curry sauces (of questionable quality) in a jar. But not so many stock curry sauces in their refrigerated sections. I am further impressed that Wegmans, which serves a region of the country not as ethnically diverse as New York City, is in the curry business.

Well done, Wegmans, well done. And you too, Erin and Kyle!

This is Erin’s second curry photo of the day. The next time you enjoy a curry, please send a photo to colleendebaise@gmail.com, and I’ll happily pubish on this blog.

In a Hurry? Need Curry?

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Curry Lane

Curry Lane, NYC.

A Good Soup If You’re Sick

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Curry soup for sick hubby

Last weekend, the hubby was sick with a mild flu, and requested chicken soup. This is an Asian version of chicken noodle soup, and quite delicious. I’ve made it before, using my homemade red curry paste – but this time I added bok choy to give it some leafy green-ness. One other change: I cooked the noodles separately, a step I recommend to avoid too much starchiness in the broth. Incidentally….my acupuncturist tells me that “good bone broth will wake the dead” so perhaps that’s why this soup seems to have restorative powers. It’s perfect if you or a loved one is feeling under the weather…or even if you’re not!

Thai Curry Soup

1 16-ounce chicken breast, with bone in
6 cups chicken broth (plus 2 cups water)
3 tbsp red curry paste
6 oz rice noodles
1 red bell pepper, julienned
2 chiles, sliced
1 baby bok choy, sliced
2 scallions, sliced
1 or 2 limes, for flavor and garnish

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth and 2 cups water to a boil. Add chicken on bone, and reduce to simmer. Cover until the chicken is cooked through, about a half hour. Remove chicken, let cool, then shed and set aside meat. (If you like, add a dash of fish sauce to help keep chicken moist.) Return bones to the broth, bring to a boil and reduce by about a third. Remove and discard bones. Add curry paste into the broth and return to simmer. While that’s simmering, cook the noodles separately; set aside. Add the bell pepper to your broth; cook until it softens. Stir in the chicken. Add chiles, bok choy, and the juice of half a lime.
Put a helping of noodles into a bowl, and ladle a big spoonful of soup over it. Serve with scallions and garnish with lime wedges. Delicious!

The Case of the Missing Shrimp

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Chinatown fish stall

Here is the fish stall on Canal Street in Chinatown where yesterday I bought a pound of tiger shrimp.

I had just been to Bangkok Center Grocery on Mosco St., picking up galangal, coconut cream, thai basil and other hard-to-find ingredients to restock my kitchen. Right before the fish stall, I bought two heads of wilty bok choy from a street vendor. So by the time I left this fish stall, I must have been carrying at least 3 bags. I remember it being unwieldy as I stopped to take this photo (which I snapped in part to show my hubby, who is always somewhat appalled I buy seafood here).

A short while later, I hopped back on the A train to W. 4th. Alas, by the time I made it home…the bag of shrimp was missing! I’ve concluded it was either 1) left on the subway inadvertently 2) dropped on the street accidentally or 3) stolen by a pickpocket (in which case, I apologize to the thief for not buying the pricier prawns). I’ll probably never know.

The happy ending: The hubby, who prefers shrimp from perhaps more sanitized markets, volunteered to pick up another pound at Citarella, our local gourmet grocery. Later that evening, we had Pumpkin Curry with Shrimp, made with a fresh batch of my homemade red curry paste. Problem solved, if not the mystery. A photo of the dish is below. Delicious!

pumpkn curry

The Highest Compliment: Readers Try My Recipe!

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My version of Easy Indian Chicken Curry, which calls for cauliflower, chick peas and green peas.

Now here’s an honor: Three recent CrackingCurry.com readers tried my Easy Indian Chicken Curry recipe!

What’s funny is that all three (unless I’m mistaken) don’t know each other — and all three live in separate parts of the country (Massachusetts, California and New York). Which helps prove my theory: Curry is a uniter.

What’s also funny is that this “Easy Indian Chicken Curry” recipe isn’t easy, despite the name. As a journalist, I have long known that the headline is everything. If I had named this “Recipe For Which You’ll Need At Least 20 Ingredients, Some Of Them Unusual,” I probably wouldn’t have gotten any takers. So thank you, Igor, Christine and Roe, for sticking it out….and sending me photos of your finished products to boot!

Here we have all three — behold, and be inspired!

igor'scurryIgor’s Curry

Igor is a former colleague from SmartMoney — a magazine that no longer exists, but in its hey-dey employed incredibly talented writers like ourselves. :) Apparently, Igor isn’t just a talented financial journalist but a chef as well! Here is what he said about the dish:

“I’m game to ruin anything once, but your recipe proved Igor-proof as well as delicious…”

Clap, clap, clap – excellent job, Igor!

 

christine'scurryChristine’s Curry

I have nearly forgotten how I know Christine, who lives in San Francisco — I believe we have a number of mutual friends in common, and she was once a member of my Upper East Side Social Club. One thing I know: Christine is an accomplished chef. Not sure my recipes are worthy of her skills! Her post on Facebook:

“Attempted my curry mentor’s (Colleen DeBaise ) East Indian curry recipe this evening. Tried to make it pretty.”

Indeed….very pretty! Thank you Christine!

 

roe'scurryRoe’s Curry

Roe and I go way back…she was my book editor and continually inspires envy for her jet-setting, olive-oil-harvesting, ragu-making ways. I knew she was accomplished at Italian food — should have realized her culinary skills would extend to curry! Her comment below:

“Yummmmmmmm! I used boneless thighs stedda breast meat and 28 oz chickpeas stedda 15. Just simmered the thighs for a total 60 mins — last 30 with the cauliflower. Caveat: this makes A LOT of curry. I have 6 pts to freeze! But it’s a keeper.”

As I said to Roe, clearly I (and the hubby) must east giganatic portions, as we don’t have nearly as much leftover. :) Thanks for the lovely photo, Roe!

If you’ve tried one of my recipes, please send a photo to colleendebaise@gmail.com, and I’ll happily pubish on this blog.

Camp Curry on the New Grill

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campcurry

So it’s become a bit of a tradition for this curry blogger (and the hubby) to make my Perfect Summertime BBQ chicken while at camp in Upstate N.Y., and this Labor Day was no exception.

Unlike Fourth of July, when the whole family gathers, the “shoulder” weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day usually attract a smaller crowd — of course, in our family, a smaller crowd still means 17 people. That meant 30 pieces of chicken on the grill, and 24 ears of corn.

newgrillThankfully, several campers volunteered their services as sous-chefs. So while myself and the hubby escaped for the (rainy) afternoon for an Uncle Sam “two-nation” boat tour, Emily Rose and Devin chopped up several onions, an entire head of garlic and a big chunk of ginger for the curry marinade. By the time we returned from Canadian waters, we had very little left to do! After adding lime juice, soy sauce and several tablespoons of curry power — we used Kalustyan’s Imperial Curry Power — we let the chicken marinate for about 45 mins before turning on the grill.

But how does one grill THAT much food, all in one sitting? Well, lo and behold, this must be my lucky year. Pictured left is a new commerical-grade Weber Grill, valued at $850, which this curry blogger WON in a local raffle! (Even stranger, I’ve won the raffle two years in a row…the organizers and possibly the town paper, Thousand Islands Sun, are beginning to think it’s fixed.) The new addition to camp is a welcome one, particularly as our group seems to be getting bigger every year…

By the time we ate — blame it on the New York City chefs, who are used to eating late — the sun had set. I’m stealing a picture from my sister’s blog to show our picnic tables set up with emergency candles for the meal.

Supper

Below is a twilight view from the picnic table of Goose Bay, with a light on in the main cabin.

camp at night

Love & Curry

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Well now here’s a development.

Years ago, I threw myself into making curry. There were a number of reasons why. I loved the cuisine; I wanted to “up my game” in the kitchen; I had a new job in Jersey City, N.J., and missed daily lunches in Chinatown, where my old job was located.

But those weren’t the only reasons.

If the truth must be told, I had gone through a terrible, painful, heart-wrenching breakup and — plain and simple — I needed a distraction. Looking ahead at a dismal calendar of lonely nights and even longer lonelier weekends, I knew I needed something to fill the time, lest the four walls of my Upper East Side apartment close in around me. What better a challenge than curry — something a white girl from Syracuse, N.Y., with limited cooking skills knew hardly anything about making?

Let’s just say it’s been an amazing journey. During those early bleak times, I’d take the train down to Chinatown, where scents and sounds would fill my senses. I’d spend hours canvassing Kalustyan’s in Murray Hill for hard-to-find ingredients, like cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds and garam masala. I’d spend my evenings experimenting with recipes, finding relief (if you could call it that) in the fact I wasn’t subjecting anyone else to my culinary misses. And as the years went by, I became a better cook…and my heart slowly began to heal. I eventually travelled to Bangkok (by myself!) – spending a week taking Thai cooking classes and marveling at how far my love of curry had taken me.

That wasn’t the end of it. I started a blog (this very one that you’re reading) and became widely known to friends as a real curry aficionado. I was invited to people’s homes to make spicy, fragrant, coconut-laden curry dishes. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal about learning to make curry. I even had a recipe published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — and recommended a wine to pair it with to boot.

But that’s still not the best part of the story. A few years ago, still looking for the perfect Mr. Right, but becoming increasingly doubtful I’d ever find him, I happened to find myself in a bar with a girlfriend on a random Tuesday evening in September. In walked two good-looking men. We struck up a conversation. The tall one, Frank, mentioned that he and his pal (who was married) met while working together in Hong Kong some years earlier. I mentioned my obsession with Asian cuisine.

“Name five ingredients in a Thai curry paste,” demanded Frank’s pal.

“Cumin, coriander, galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime zest,” I replied, which seemed to impress them both.

By the end of the night, Frank wanted to know how he could stay in touch. “You can check out my blog, CrackingCurry.com,” I said, before getting in a cab. I didn’t expect to hear from him — I had pretty much given up on romance — but within a few days, Frank had checked the blog and tracked me down (my full name is on this blog’s About section).  In his message, he asked for tips on great Thai restaurants in New York, and cleverly managed to turn that into a pickup line. “If you have a couple of recommendations I’d love to hear them,” he said. “Better yet, if you’d like to meet up over a curry at one of them I’d love that, too.”

And so later that month, we did meet up, at Laut, a Southeast Asia restaurant near Union Square. In fact, you can read my telling blog post on our excursion, where I effectively review the restaurant (it was so-so) and give better marks to the company (10 stars!). We continued to see each other. On a later date, I made him the first of many homemade curries – Halibut in a Red Curry Coconut Sauce — at my apartment. He seemed smitten.

As our relationship progressed, I’d take my usual trips down to Chinatown….but now, I had a companion. As we picked up ingredients for curry meals — leafy bok choy, shiny bird’s-eye chile peppers, nubbly kaffir limes — we’d talk about our experiences in Asia (Frank was born in Hong Kong, when his parents lived there as expats). We’d dream out loud about traveling there together.

This February, we finally planned the trip, to Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia, and the night before we left, Frank proposed. On Aug. 10, we tied the knot in New York City.

Turns out my curry obsession, borne from heart break, led me to love. I would never have guessed that my unusual hobby would mend my broken heart so literally. ✤