Main Course

Creamy Coconut Chicken Curry with Eggplant

Bowl of coconut chicken curry with eggplant over rice with cilantro and lime wedges

This past week, tragedy struck my tomato seedlings. Six weeks prior I planted several flats of heirloom tomatoes including two varieties of beefsteak and a beautiful lobed variety I couldn’t wait to see - costoluto genovese. Miraculously, every one of them escaped the seemingly inevitable fate of damping off shortly after germination and I found myself in the unexpected position of having to thin the seedlings, rather than work with what remained. Granted, I was being somewhat overly-optimistic about how early my zone 6 weather would permit me to put tomatoes into the ground. Six weeks of growth by late May is pushing it for tomatoes. Nevertheless, they were lush, dark green, growing sturdy and tall. I was scrambling to re-arrange my grow light setup to make space for them. Everything was progressing beautifully.

Flat of tomato and pepper seedlings with rubber boots

And then I spotted it. The lowermost leaves of one or two of the seedlings were drooping and lifeless. Foolishly, before identifying the exact problem, I decided to treat it as I would a late blight, which generally occurs long after tomatoes have been transplanted. I snipped off the affected branches in hopes that the disease would not spread. It is always best to google these things first. The disease did spread, and what might have cost me only one or two plants, had I disposed of those infected immediately, spread to almost all of the tomato seedlings I had painstakingly cared for from seed. My eventual google search failed to identify the disease. * But the general rule seems to be that there is no cure for plant wilt that cannot be attributed to watering problems. They must all be disposed of. And, reluctantly, that is what I did. 

“bowls

Admittedly, I am being melodramatic. Yes, it was too late to restart tomatoes from seed, and I won’t be harvesting beautiful lobed tomatoes this year, but I was able to pick up new seedlings from a local nursery - including a yellow variety I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. It won’t be according to plan, but there will still be tomatoes. Once again, the garden reminds me of the importance of remaining flexible. Plan, yes. But allow that plan to shift, sometimes many times over, as the season progresses. In 5 short years of gardening, this has been an important but challenging lesson. Flexibility does not come naturally to me. I like to plan; to feel in control. Sometimes, for instance, when I am out shopping or running errands, and am unable to find just one thing on my list, I will turn around and go home, giving up on everything, abandoning all plans. But when you are gardening, no matter how detailed your site plan and planting calendar spreadsheet, unexpected, unplanned for things will happen. And the need for flexibility and improvisation is as unavoidable in the kitchen as it is in the garden.

“Bowl

One of my favourite ways to get inspired in the kitchen is to order cookbooks from the public library. I gravitate towards books with tons of beautiful photos - if I’m being honest, if there’s no photo, I don’t want to cook it - and those that are centred thematically around a single type of global cuisine. This is how I found myself incorporating Burmese cuisine into my culinary repertoire. First, I picked up Naomi Duguid’s Burma after seeing it featured in Food52’s 2013 piglet tournament of cookbooks, and later I picked up Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy’s Burma Superstar. Both books are beautiful and I’ve cooked several dishes from each. Still on my must-make list of Burmese food is mohinga, a noodle soup made with a whole fish, commonly sold in street stalls and eaten for breakfast, it is one of Burma’s most popular dishes with many regional variations; and Burma Superstar’s samusa soup - an ambitious dish made with both homemade samosas and homemade split pea falafel. But these recipes are “project food.” They contain long lists of ingredients and multiple sub-recipes. A tendency to gravitate towards project food is my kitchen nemesis. Most of the time, I need to cook something that won’t take all day to make.

“two

So I set out to make the coconut chicken curry from Burma Superstar. But things didn’t go as planned. It was basically a one-pot dish (plus rice) that would use up the chicken thighs I had leftover from recipe testing. But, I didn’t have nearly enough chicken, so I added some potatoes.  And, while the recipe called for paprika, all I had was smoked paprika. The smoked paprika overpowered the dish, lending it a meaty unctuousness that made the curry sauce reminiscent of a sausage gravy. Instead of giving up on the curry, abandoning all plans, I allowed the smoked paprika to steer the recipe below in an unusual direction for me: mild, smoky, cozy flavours balanced somewhat by fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime. I’ve switched the potatoes out with roasted eggplant for this version, to cut down on the number of starches in the dish and add more vegetables. This is not the sort of bold and spicy flavour profile I normally create. Just as not every meal can be a project, not every meal can be fiery hot - trust me, the jerk chicken sandwich recipe I have coming up has that covered. And sometimes, I need to remind myself, good things can come out of unexpected deviations from the plan, if you allow yourself to just go with it.


*Only the bottom leaves were affected, and they remained green and very soft as they wilted and drooped. If you know what this is, please tell me!


Creamy Coconut Chicken Curry with Eggplant

A mild creamy curry inspired by Burmese flavours that features boneless skinless chicken thighs and Chinese eggplant, made with a rich sweet and smoky coconut curry sauce, and finished with fresh cilantro and lime juice. Serve over rice or with your favourite flatbread - or both!

Makes: 4-6 servings

COCONUT CHICKEN CURRY WITH EGGPLANT IN A BOWL SERVED OVER RICE WITH NAAN BREAD

Ingredients:
  • 1 pound eggplant (about 3 long)
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive (or canola) oil
  • 1 teaspoons salt (divided)
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 8)
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 3 cups diced onion
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic (3-4 large cloves)
  • 1 (13 1/2 ounces) can coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 cup cream, room temperature
  • 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped, for serving
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving

Instructions:

  1. To Roast the Eggplant: Preheat oven to 400F. Cut eggplants on the diagonal into 1/2-inch slices. Drizzle slices with olive oil and sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of the salt on top. Toss to coat. Spread slices evenly across two parchment-paper-lined rimmed baking sheets. Roast until eggplant begins to brown on bottom, about 15 minutes. Using a spatula, flip the slices over and continue to roast about until eggplant is soft and has browned on both sides, about 10 more minutes. Remove eggplant from the oven and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, trim the excess fat from the chicken thighs (optional - I don’t bother), cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Place chicken in a medium-sized bowl and, mixing with your hands, coat with the smoked paprika, turmeric and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Let the chicken thighs marinate in the spices either at room temperature while you prepare the rest of the curry ingredients, or up to overnight. It is important to refrigerate the chicken if you will be marinating it for longer than 2 hours.
  3. In a large pot or dutch oven, heat canola oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently until the onions become translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic. Continue to cook for 5 more minutes.
  4. Add the chicken to the pot and stir the chicken and onions together to coat evenly with the spices. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes and lower the heat to medium-low. Add the fish sauce and water and bring the mixture back up to a boil.
  5. Adjust the heat so that the curry maintains a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes. Add the reserved eggplant slices, stir to combine and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and the eggplant begins to break down, about 25-30 more minutes. Stir in the curry powder.
  6. Temper the cream to avoid curdling as you add it to the sauce: pour the room-temperature cream into a glass measuring cup. Adding some of the curry sauce into the cream, a few tablespoons at a time, stirring to combine. Continue adding curry into the cream until the cream mixture is very warm, and stir it back into the curry. Taste the curry and add more salt or fish sauce, if necessary, to taste.
  7. Garnish each serving with cilantro and lime wedges and serve with rice and/or flatbreads. Allow leftovers to cool and store in the refridgerator for up to 3 days.

Heavily adapted from: Burma Superstar

Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Noodles, particularly rice udon and egg, have taken over my kitchen, and my diet, as of late. It began with an attempt to re-create some of the dishes from our favourite Thai place, mainly Pad Thai and these Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao); then I moved on to cold sesame Sichuan skinny egg noodles inspired by the memory of a fantastic trip to an authentic Sichuan restaurant in Montreal over a decade ago, at least, it seemed authentic to me at the time, given that, up until that point in my life, my frame of reference for Chinese food was a chicken ball combo plate; and finally, for times when I was not in the mood for spicy, Japanese inspired miso udon noodle dishes. The evenings that I have found myself lying on the couch watching a good show with a bowl of saucy noodles perched on my chest have been many.

Just as a side note, there is something about mentioning TV watching in the context of food writing that strikes me as amusingly, if not somewhat embarrassingly, unsophisticated. If the daily activities described in much popular food writing were any indication, I should be spending my afternoons stepping outside onto cobblestone streets to explore some medieval European city, or driving a pastel bicycle along a dirt road flanked by fields of wildflowers with a basket of fresh produce flung over the handlebars, or reminiscing about that summer I spent in some seaside town in the mediterranean, soaking in the foodways of the locals. But no, in my real-life downtime I am lying on the couch slurping noodles while watching prison break on Netflix. I'm just going to own it. It is the “golden age” of television, as they say, and saucy spicy noodles are everything.

At the risk of putting a damper on the excitement that should surround these drunken noodles (Pad Kee Mao), I want to segue into a few thoughts related to their sodium content*. On the one hand, this is a relatively healthy dish. Thai food, like many Asian cuisines, is primarily plant-based. The ingredients are whole-foods or minimally processed and contain none of the "bad fats". On the other hand, anything that contains even the smallest amount of soy sauce and/or fish sauce is relatively high in sodium. 

As a general rule, I try not to focus too much on individual nutrients, or "good" and "bad" foods (you know, like I am doing right now). However, a recent post from Marion Nestle's blog about the sodium content of restaurant food has stuck with me and left me more vigilant about my sodium intake than I otherwise am. The infographic she references from a VOX article really needs to be seen to be believed. It features a number of commonly ordered selections from popular (American) restaurant chains, and measures their sodium content against a McDonalds small fry. For instance, they claim that TGI Friday's pecan-crusted chicken salad contains an amount of sodium equivalent to 12 1/2 orders of small McDonalds fries. Twelve and a half! 

This must be a deliberately deceptive move on the part of the restaurant industry. That sodium is in there because it is an easy, and cheap, way to make food taste better so that people will buy more of it. But surely those in the restaurant industry, and those who regulate it, know that the average customer probably has no idea that it is even possible for a salad to contain so much salt; that if they are choosing to eat at a restaurant, and not a fast food joint, they expect the food to be relatively healthier; that if they are choosing a salad, they believe they are making a healthy choice. This hidden salt (to say nothing of added sugars) is just one of many examples of how our food environment works against people's best efforts to make good food choices - a topic I intend to write about at length elsewhere.

In any case, the takeaway here should be to proceed with caution when eating at restaurants, not to cut salt out of your diet entirely - especially if that would mean missing out on these drunken noodles. Most of the salt that we consume comes from processed and ultra-processed foods, fast food, and restaurant meals, not our salt shakers. Brazil's recent groundbreaking food guide contains some of the best advice, in my opinion, for eating a healthy diet. Among other things it suggests that we cook as much as we can, from scratch, at home. If we do that, sodium intake should take care of itself.

*Although nutritional science is relevant to my work on the cultural politics of food, I am not a nutritionist. My knowledge of what is healthy, nutritionally, is partial and approached and interpreted through a social science perspective and skill set.

Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao)

Serves: 3-4

Two bowls of drunken noodles (pad kee mao) with a small bowl of peanuts and two water glasses

Ingredients:
    Sauce
  • ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

  • Noodles
  • 225 grams Thai rice noodles,
  • 4 birds-eye chilies, very finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, cut into strips
  • ¼ large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 baby bok choy, sliced into strips, washed and dried
  • 1 small roma tomato, chopped
  • ½ cup holy or Thai basil*, roughly chopped

  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, roughly chopped

Instructions:
  1. PREPARE NOODLES: Fill a large bowl with very hot water, soak the noodles until they begin to soften, but are still too hard to eat, they will continue to cook in the wok or skillet.**
  2. In a large skillet or cast iron, heat a thin layer of oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and thai chilies and sauté until they begin to brown, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add tomato, bell pepper and eggplant and sauté, stirring frequently, until the eggplant softens and browns, about 5 minutes (add a bit of the sauce if the vegetables begin to burn before they cook).
  4. PREPARE SAUCE: Meanwhile, wisk together soy sauce, fish sauce, white sugar, and sesmae oil in a small bowl. Set aside.
  5. Add the noodles. Pour enough sauce over the noodles to coat. Cook until noodles are just about at your desired texture, stirring constantly
  6. Add the bok choy and basil, stirring for another minute, until they begin to wilt
  7. Remove skillet from the heat, transfer the noodles into bowls, and top with chopped peanuts and scallions. Serve immediately.

* Italian Basil will work too, but won't taste the same. Holy basil is worth tracking down, if at all possible. 

** This may be obvious to some, but for the uninitiated (as I was a few months ago) cooking rice noodles can be tricky, and I have found that the best technique for getting the right texture -soft but not mushy- tends to vary by the size and brand of the noodle, and the package instructions don't always seem to produce the right consistency. I've found trial and error to be the best way to figure it out.

This is a meatless version (sprinkling 1/4 cup of peanuts over each bowl gives them one serving of protein), but the noodles taste great with chicken, beef, or shrimp. Add and stir-fry any meat or fish before adding the noodles.