Once, when I was young and misguided, I was caught with a friend in a blinding nor' easter in Boston's South End, back before its streets were lined with stylish restaurants. We were ravenous for dinner, and couldn't travel by car, so we wandered the seeming ghost town in white-out conditions hoping to find anything open. Finally, I spotted a smudge of neon glowing like a beacon in the distance, and we worked our way to it to discover a tiny, family run Thai restaurant, open and ready for business. I had never been to a Thai restaurant, and the menu's descriptions were cryptic. It seemed to us the whole menu was based on either red or green curry, but we didn't know what distinguished one from the other, so we asked our server. Due to a language barrier, she didn't appear to understand our question, so we pantomimed and, I'm embarrassed to say, probably resorted to speaking more loudly, as if that would help her learn a new language instantly. Finally, it seemed we had made a breakthrough. Our server's eyes lit up and she said, "Ah! Ah!," while nodding knowingly. "The difference," she said, "is in the flavor!"
Several years later, I left for cooking school in France. Throughout my experiences there, the Thai woman's comment, which I found funny at the time, continued to swim around in my head, assuming different meanings, and becoming more significant. I lived in Paris and did my food shopping at the local butcher, the cheese shop, the bakery, the fishmonger. I bought scallops in their shells, and separated muscle from viscera in my tiny kitchenette. I bought chickens and ducks with heads and feet still attached, and overcame my squeamishness to reduce them to parts. I bought whole fish and filleted them at home. I bought ripe, fragrant fruit and vegetables fresh from the farm. No kidding; I was living a dream.
Then it was over, and I began living and working in Boston. Although old Beantown was quickly evolving into a more food savvy place, at first I mourned the loss of Parisian neighborhood markets: there would be no more goose fat for my pommes de terre, or gelatin sheets from the pharmacy for my Coeur a la Creme. Eventually, as I gained experience cooking in what would now be described as an eclectic "New American" style restaurant, my focus parted ways with traditional French cuisine, and cob-smoked bacon nudged goose fat from my mind. Over the years, my favorite local market, Bread and Circus, became Whole Foods, and Trader Joe finally came to town. Things were really looking up. Then I moved to a tiny town in the Mad River Valley of Vermont.
Initially drawn in by its untrammeled beauty and lack of commercialism, as well as my favorite skiing in New England, I started out here part time until my future husband, a full-time resident, beckoned me to stay. It was all romance and wine by the fire then; how could I be expected to anticipate the culinary woes to come? But once again, the hardest thing about relocating was letting go of my foodways. Things I took for granted in the city assumed a vital importance when I couldn't get them here. No leeks? No mint? No lamb shoulder? No Greek yogurt? It's not like I was searching for banana leaves (that was last month); these were common staples to me. But inevitably, just when I'd given up hoping for them - voila! - there they'd be, weeks later, when they weren't on my list. By then, I was busy cultivating a new grudge about the lack of bok choy, or fresh coconuts, or whatever was on that day's list.
I don't know when I finally realized if I was going to be a contented cook in my newly-adopted (and beautiful, by the way - did I mention that?) town, I was the one that was going to have to change. City markets had spoiled me; I was used to walking out the door and having everything I desired within easy reach. But gradually, I've acquired the old Yankee penchant for making do with what I have. If I go to the store with something special in mind and come home with something different, it doesn't ruin my day. I make substitutions a lot. I don't fret if I can't make a dish that is truly "authentic' as long as it's tasty. And, ironically, just as I'm getting comfortable with this new approach, better and better shopping options have cropped up in town. We now have a local co-op stocked with the very specialty items I used to lug back from Boston, as well as a new farm store with take-out foods and baked goods. Greek yogurt, of many varieties, is readily available. And of course, summertime, with its much anticipated farmer's markets, will soon be rolling in. So things are looking up, all over again.
Now what do I do if I'm craving, say, Vietnamese curry, and I can't get my hands on lemongrass? I reassure myself by thinking, yes, the difference is in the flavor, and that's okay. I'll call it something else, dress it up a bit, and we'll eat very well nestled here in the mountains.
The recipe below reflects my personal tweaking.
The recipe below reflects my personal tweaking.
Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Sugar Snaps
(adapted from Quick and Easy Vietnamese by Nancie McDermott)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1 cup sliced onion
5 slices fresh ginger
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut into big bite-sized chunks
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 cups chicken broth or water
one 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 1/2 - 2 cups sugar snap peas
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
In a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the chicken, spread it out in one layer (cook in two batches if necessary) and cook briefly on one side until it just begins to brown. Toss chicken well and cook 2 minutes more, until chicken is very lightly golden brown. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
To oil remaining in pan, add onions, garlic, ginger and curry powder. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened. Add fish sauce, sugar, salt, chili flakes, broth, coconut milk and sweet potatoes.
Bring to a gentle simmer and return chicken to pan. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, then add sugar snap peas and cook about 5 minutes more. When sweet potatoes are tender and sugar snaps are just cooked, remove pan from heat.
If the sauce is very thin, strain entire mixture into a bowl, reserving juices. Return juices to pan and boil over high heat, stirring regularly, until sauce is slightly thickened (don't overdo it; you don't want a really thick sauce) - about 2 minutes, depending on the consistency you started with. Return chicken mixture to pan and toss with sauce. Stir in lime juice.
Serves 4 to 6
If you have lemongrass, by all means use it. The original recipe calls for 2 stalks, trimmed and cut into 2-inch length pieces, added at the same time you add the ginger.
The original recipe did not call for sugar snaps, but I found fresh-looking ones and thought them a welcome addition for their color, crunch and flavor. I also changed the preparation slightly, used a bit more chicken and reduced the amount of broth added. (Even still, the sauce was a touch thin; hence the reduction at the end, which works well while still preserving lots of sauce for the rice.) Finally, I like to garnish each serving with chopped peanuts and cilantro if I have them handy, although it's wonderful without them too.