Extra-Green Thai Green Curry from Crescent Dragonwagon

March 05, 2012
By Holly Jennings

A couple of weeks ago I offered you a cocktail while waiting for dinner. Well, here it is, though not from Thai Food, the current DCCC pick, but from Bean by Bean, the latest cookbook by Crescent Dragonwagon. If that name sounds familiar, and who can forget a name like that?, it’s because she’s the author of another cookbook that was the DCCC pick last Spring. Crescent’s lovely publicist at Workman Publishing, Rebecca Carlysle, my review of that cookbook (click here to read it) and so she decided to send me a copy of Bean by Bean to review, and she has graciously allowed me to include a recipe from the book. Since I know you’re waiting for a Thai meal, and not just Thai-inspired drinking chocolate and cocktails, I picked Crescent’s recipe for green curry with tofu. Read on to get my impression of Crescent’s newest cookbook and for her extra-green curry recipe, shown in the photo above.

More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, even Sweet Beans!
By Crescent Dragonwagon
Workman Publishing
370 pp.

Bean by Bean, an essential guide to preparing and enjoying one of the world’s oldest forms of sustenance, is the latest cookbook from Crescent Dragonwagon, who cultivates beans and readers-turned-happy-cooks-and-satisfied-eaters with equal facility.

If I were a bean, I would feel lucky to be planted in Crescent’s garden, and perhaps even luckier when, at just the right moment, I was picked and taken into her kitchen to be handled with care, appreciation, and love and ultimately transformed into an appetizing and sustaining meal—after all, legumes have the most concentrated amount of plant-based protein around. Or perhaps I will be left to dry in my pod, then shucked, and stored in the pantry until one winter’s day when I end up in a simmering pot of chili. Then again, once dried, I might be plopped in the ground the following spring, to start the cycle all over again. This is the story of the bean told in Crescent’s warm, inviting, and conversational style, a conversation in which you the reader are addressed directly with such sweet terms of endearment as “baby” and “angel.” (Crescent, by the way, developed her conversational style long before our current age of blogging, in which a direct, conversational style is now commonplace.)

This book is a makeover of the author’s first cookbook, The Bean Book, published in 1972. And yet it is so much more than that. It represents thirty years of digging deep into beans, their history, their cultural meaning, their literary references, and deeper yet into the endless ways to prepare them in the kitchen and enjoy them at the table. In Bean by Bean, you will learn a slew of practical bean cooking and eating tips: such as, how to check if your bowl of dried beans has in fact soaked long enough (you split one open; it should be the same color all the way through); how to “de-gas” your beans (yes, Crescent deals with the issue of flatulence head-on, which, it has been proven, generally becomes less and less of a problem if you incrementally eat beans more and more); and how to get the complete dietary protein your body needs from beans (simply pair them with grains).

On a very fundamental level, you will learn the three basic classifications of beans: fresh, or “green,” beans, in which the entire bean is eaten, pod and all; dried; and those lesser-known and too rare (especially outside the South) in-between bean known as shell beans or shellies. Like their more mature, dried counterparts, the shell beans are shelled, or shucked, and the pod discarded, but the beans may be prepared similarly to fresh beans (they take a little longer to cook than fresh, but not much longer). After discovering the pleasure of eating shell beans this past summer while visiting a friend in Alabama, I appreciate the author’s passion for them. Crescent’s tip for preparing fresh and shell beans together in the same pot is something I’m dying to try, once they are in season again.

In the meantime, a green curry of tofu and green vegetables awaits, as does Crescent’s recipe for the irresistible Gotcha-Hotcha Sweet-Smoky Cocktail Peanuts, a reminder, by their inclusion in Bean by Bean, that peanuts are, after all, a legume.

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Following recipe from Bean by Beanby Crescent Dragonwagon (Workman Publishing)

Note: Whereas I always write my own introduction to recipes from cookbooks discussed or featured on the blog, and often tweak language in the method, here I’ve used the recipe verbatim so that you can get a feel for Crescent’s style. Two comments about the recipe: The chiles I used when making the green curry paste from scratch were not very hot, so I ended up using about three times as much of the green curry paste as was called for in the main recipe; be prepared to do the same depending on how hot you like your curry and how hot your green chiles are. Though it’s optional, do squeeze a fresh wedge of lime over the curry before eating it; it’s just what this creamy rich curry needs.

Extra-Green Thai Green Curry of Green Beans, Green Pepper & Tofu

Oh, the sweet–searingly hot happy havoc Thai green curries work! Their tingling combination of fresh herbal notes, chiles, often fruit, and creamy, dreamy unctuous coconut milk enchants my palate every single time. I’ve learned to make them at home, because most Thai restaurants use a splash of fermented fish sauce (nam pla), a salty flavoring sauce similar to soy sauce but derived from fish. Nam pla is the one typically Thai flavor note not to my liking; to me, it’s sort of spoiled-tasting (though if you grew up with it, I understand, nothing Thai tastes quite right without it). Although most dishes on a Thai menu can be made without nam pla (even though the waiter may roll his or her eyes), green curries usually can’t be, because the sauce is made, nam pla and all, in advance.

A superb recipe for homemade green curry paste follows. it puts the commercially made curry pastes to shame. However, when I’m jonesing for Thai and in a hurry or short on ingredients, I’m glad to have a jar of the commercial stuff in the pantry (which I always do). But I’m even gladder when I have homemade in the freezer.

Once the curry paste is made, this dish, with its rich, satiny, deeply creamy coconut milk, is a quick business.

Vegetable oil cooking spray
3½ cups regular or reduced-fat unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup From-Scratch Green Curry Paste (recipe follows) or a commercial variety, plus extra as needed
1 pound green beans, tipped, tailed, and cut on an angle into 2-inch pieces
1 package (8 ounces) traditional water-packed extra-firm tofu, well drained and cut into bite-size dice
2 tablespoons tamari or shoyu soy sauce, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar, plus extra as needed
2 teaspoons grated lime zest
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and sliced into thin strips
½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai basil
½ cup frozen green peas (unthawed)
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
Chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish
Fresh hot green chile, sliced into rings, for garnish
Steamed jasmine rice or rice noodles, for serving
Thai Condiment Tray (below), for serving (optional)

1. Spray a medium-large saucepan or small Dutch oven with oil (if it is not nonstick), add the coconut milk, and bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat. Let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the curry paste, whisking to dissolve it into the coconut milk. Continue cooking for 2 more minutes.

2. Add the green beans, tofu, soy sauce, brown sugar, and lime zest. Let cook at a gentle boil, stirring occasionally, until the green beans are tender-crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the bell pepper and half of the basil leaves and stir to wilt the basil.

3. Take the green peas straight from the freezer, pour them into a strainer, and run hot tap water over them briefly. Stir them, barely thawed, into the curry.

4. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding salt if necessary, as well as perhaps a little more brown sugar, curry paste, or soy sauce.

5. Transfer the curry to a serving bowl, and sprinkle with the reserved basil, the cilantro, and the green chiles. Serve very hot, with rice or noodles and the Thai Condiment Tray, if using, on the table.

Serves 6 to 8, when accompanied by rice or noodles

From-Scratch Green Curry Paste

Yes, I know: Making your own curry paste is a big hassle and will probably require a trip to an Asian market. But make it at least once in your life—it’s that good. I use fermented black beans instead of the traditional shrimp paste or nam pla, but you can use either. This recipe makes enough for four full batches of the green curry above, but stirring a tablespoon or two into any stir-fry quickly moves it from ordinary to off the charts.

Once the ingredients are combined and ground, the flavors start losing their mojo. To prevent this, scrape the mixture, in ¹/4-cup portions, into small zip-top bags, place these in a large zip-top bag, place that in a second big zip-top bag, and then freeze the lot. (This triple-bagging not only provides ready-to-go portioning but also prevents the bag of frozen peaches nestling beside the curry from tasting startlingly of cilantro and garlic.)

Lemongrass, available at Asian food markets and easily grown, is a sturdy, tough, reedy seasoning, which doesn’t look at all herbal. It has a magical lemony-floral taste unlike anything else. If you can’t get fresh lemongrass, don’t bother making this green curry paste. Period.

2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
10 whole peppercorns
6 stalks fresh lemongrass
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, including washed roots and stems if possible
2 tablespoons peeled, finely grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest
About 4 heads (not cloves, we’re talking whole heads here) fresh garlic, cloves peeled and coarsely chopped (to equal ¹/³ cup chopped)
¼ red onion or 1 to 2 small shallots, coarsely chopped (about ¹/³ cup chopped)
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh green serrano or jalapeño chiles (about 6 to 7 serranos, 5 to 6 jalapeños)
2 teaspoons fermented black beans, or fermented black bean and garlic sauce, or shrimp paste
2 teaspoons salt

1. In a small, dry, heavy skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander and cumin seeds until browned and fragrant, stirring or shaking the skillet often to prevent burning, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle or a small spice grinder, add the peppercorns, and crush to a fine powder. Set aside.

2. Prepare the lemongrass: Cut away and discard the grassy tops of the stalks as well as any tough root sections, leaving a piece about 3 inches in length with a clean, smooth, flat base at the root end below the bulb. Peel off and discard the tough outer leaves to reveal a softer, pale yellow stalk; thinly slice crosswise what is left.

3. Combine the crushed spices and lemongrass in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Buzz, pausing several times to scrape down the sides of the processor. When the paste is thick, fragrant, and fairly smooth—you may wish to add just a little water—it’s ready for use. Use as much as you need, then freeze the rest as described in the headnote. It will keep, frozen, for up to 6 months, though it starts losing a little pungency after 3 months.

Makes about 2 cups

Thai Condiment Tray

You’ve probably seen this on the table at Thai restaurants—a tray full of little dishes of lots of good things with which to amend your food. This is standard operating procedure in Thailand, where the individuality of taste for kreung broong, seasonings, is respected and catered to as a matter of course (kind of like in China with dan-dan noodles). Put out a tray with as many of the following as you can manage, each in its own little dish:

* tamari or shoyu soy sauce
* coarse-grained sugar, such as turbinado
* finely chopped roasted peanuts
* wedges of fresh lime
* dried red chile flakes
* Thai-style chile vinegar sauce or pickled chiles
* Sriracha chile paste
* Thai Crystal (see Note)
* rings or strips of fresh red or green chiles
* coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and/or Thai basil
* nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

Note: It’s me here, Holly. After saying I wouldn’t butt into Crescent’s recipe, I am to explain the reference to mysterious-sounding Thai Crystal: It’s a garlicky, sweet, vinegary, and spicy dipping sauce that is, according to my friend Jenn Megyesi who makes it regularly, very good and very addictive and, once tried, is something you always want to have on hand. There is a recipe for it in Bean by Bean and in Crescent’s earlier cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian, where it made its debut.

0 Comments to “Extra-Green Thai Green Curry from Crescent Dragonwagon”

  1. MeganS says:

    Oh Miss Holly, don’t I wish I were in your vicinity to enjoy the whole enchilada(as it were) of your cooking club! Nice review, ma’am!

    I remain, relentlessy and incrementally yours,

  2. Megan, I’m so glad you like the review. Having been to Crescent’s writing class has given both of us an insider’s perspective, huh? If you like the cookbook club idea you can start a chapter of the Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club out your way, or of course just use the idea to start your own club–your own “enchilada” as Crescent says. Happy Spring.


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