I have rarely in my life done anything the way I was supposed to, or the way anyone else did it. My parents swear that my first complete sentence was “me do it myself,”and my brother has commented that I not only “think outside the box,” but do not know the actual location of the box. I am not particularly ambitious or energetic; I have just always been offended by rules, customs or “expert opinions” that seem to have no purpose beyond making things safe and easy.
I follow state and local laws, have a strong moral code, and observe most social conventions like waiting in line and taking turns merging. On the other hand, against all advice, I opened a law office when I had no clients and little experience, bought a house in a neighborhood full of student rentals because I loved the house, and consistently choose not to make my son participate in 50,000 extracurricular activities that will improve his shot at a full scholarship to Harvard. The office was a success, I still love the house, and my son is turning out pretty well without Math Camp or an intensive after-school course in obscure Lithuanian dialects.
Given my (somewhat erratic) profile, it has always surprised me that I have historically been terrified to deviate from a recipe when I cooked. I would substitute almond extract for vanilla in a cookie recipe, or use Yukon Gold potatoes in place of Russets, but most of the time I felt that I not only needed a recipe, but needed to refer to it continually like an obsessive compulsive ritual. If I didn’t look at the recipe again, I might forget to add the finely chopped asparagus before the addition of the last half cup of broth, thus destroying my risotto. Even if I had made the same recipe 20 times. And the consequences, according to my subconscious conformist, would be truly terrible. No starch with the chicken! Wasted Arborio rice and asparagus! The decline of Western civilisation!
Last night as I made Thai Beef Curry for dinner, I observed that I had really deviated so far from the original recipe that I was really doing something fairly different. The basic “bones” of the curry were in tact; I was still using coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce and a little sugar. I was not cooking the beef sous vide or presenting an envelope of rice-flavored paper which released a puff of curry-flavored air when bitten. I was just changing the recipe based on our tastes, and on my experience in the kitchen.
Here is the recipe as it originally appeared in the blog on August 6th:
Thai Red Beef Curry Recipe
- 500g lean beef strips
- 1 tbsp Thai red curry paste
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 300ml canned coconut milk
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp Brown sugar
- 1 tsp crushed garlic
- 1/2 red capsicum (large mild pepper)
- 80g button mushrooms
- 80g spinach
- 4 tbsp chopped basil
Mix the beef strips with oil and garlic. Heat wok on high. Stir-fry the beef strips in batches 1 minute, removing each batch when cooked. Before returning beef strips to wok, add capsicum (sliced) and sliced mushrooms with a sprinkling of water. Stir for 2 minutes.
Return beef strips. Add curry paste, fish sauce, coconut milk, brown sugar, chopped spinach and chopped basil. Toss to heat through. Then serve with boiled rice and fresh basil leaves.
Here’s what I’ve changed:
- We like it hot, so I use 4 tablespoons of curry paste instead of 1
- I like garlic, so I use 3-4 crushed cloves
- Sam doesn’t eat mushrooms so I don’t use them; “our” Thai restaurant uses carrots, and we like the sweetness in contrast to the heat, so I use them instead
- I didn’t like the flavor or texture of the spinach in this, so I use a sliced onion, instead
- The basil is a great fillip, but not necessary
- The quick-frying and removal of the beef recommended in the recipe only works if you use beef that is quite tender (and therefore expensive) to begin with. Tougher, cheaper, flavorful cuts of meat can easily be substituted but require longer, slower cooking with a little more liquid added. Its also necessary to cook the fat out of them and drain it off before adding other ingredients.
- Tougher vegetables like carrots also take much longer to become tender than either mushrooms or spinach, and benefit from cooking a little longer and slower
- A packaged broccoli/cabbage/carrot/cauliflower slaw/stir-fry mix is an excellent, convenient way to get a greater variety vegetables into the dish with no labor
- This does NOT taste as good made with “light” coconut milk
- If the dish is cooked longer and slower to allow the meat (and vegetables) to become more tender, its necessary to add more liquid. Broth and water are okay, but dilute the flavor. The best flavor is achieved by making enough sauce to allow it to reduce during cooking but still leave plenty to soak into one’s rice. I decided to double the sauce ingredients while leaving the quantities of meat and vegetables as they were; even if I use leaner meat and do not require as much simmering time I have never heard a complaint from anyone in my family about the existence of “too much sauce….”
Here is the recipe that has become my curry recipe:
Annie’s Out-of-the-Box Beef Curry
- 1 1/2 pounds lean beef strips (can be from any cut of beef, but fatty and/or tough cuts will require an additional step)
- 8 tbsp Thai red curry paste
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp Brown sugar
- 3-4 crushed garlic cloves
- 1 large or small onions halved and thinly sliced
- 3 carrots peeled and cut into rounds or 1 1/2 cups slaw or stir fry mix (not frozen)
- 4 tbsp chopped basil (optional)
1. If you are using tough or fatty meat (chuck, for example) cook with no oil over medium- high heat until all visible pink is gone, remove meat from pan with a slotted spoon, pour off fat, and return meat to pan. If you are using lean meat (almost no visible marbling) heat oil in pan over medium-high heat and cook until no visible pink remains.
2. Add onions and carrots or slaw mixture to meat and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat for about 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 more minute.
3. Add coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce and brown sugar; stir to combine. Reduce heat to “low” and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until meat can be cut with the side of a fork but is not mushy. (You are looking for a texture that is firm, but not so firm that you will essentially be serving beef chewing gum). Cooking time will vary depending on the type of meat used.
5. When meat has reached desired consistency check sauce for taste and add salt or pepper if needed.
6. Serve curry over steamed or boiled rice, and garnish with fresh basil if you like.