When I was in nutrition school, lunch was more of a competitive sport than a meal. At noon we’d all head to the student lounge, break out hipster-chic insulated lunch totes, and the judging would begin. The winners were awarded with “oohs” and “aahs” and requests for a recipe; the losers would quietly consume their PB&Js and vow to bring something more impressive next time.
My practical meals were mostly ignored until the day I brought in Thai green curry. Suddenly, I was surrounded by admirers—everyone wanted my recipe! The only problem was that I didn’t have a recipe. My coveted lunch was actually repackaged leftovers from the Thai joint down the street. Being as susceptible to flattery as the next person, I promised my recipe to my classmates and went home to recreate that green curry in my own kitchen.
Three failed batches later, I realized the fatal flaw in my attempts: Ho-hum store-bought curry paste just didn’t stand up to the rice and coconut milk. The traditional curry ingredients were full of flavor on their own, but they mellowed considerably when introduced to the rice and coconut milk. To make a great curry, I’d have to make my own curry paste.
To do this, I rounded up a whole bunch of green stuff: cilantro, Thai basil, scallions, and Thai chiles. I then added other flavor-packed ingredients like garlic, ginger, coconut milk, and spices. This accounted for the curry paste’s bright flavor, but I also wanted to match the convenience of the store-bought stuff. That’s where an ice cube tray came in. By freezing the pureed mixture in the tray, I could use just what I needed, and have more on hand whenever the mood struck. These herb-packed cubes were like a curry concentrate.
Making green curry paste involves, unsurprisingly, a lot of green stuff. You're looking for a flavor explosion in the finished product, so get the freshest cilantro and basil, and the most perfectly ripe fruits and veggies you can find. Your counter should be leafy and bright during set-up.
Stress release time! Smash that garlic with the flat side of a knife to loosen the papery skin—it should come right off.
You don't want any hunks of skin in your curry paste, so after removing the skin from the smashed garlic, peel the ginger. The curve of a spoon does a good job of getting around all the knobs and nooks of ginger root. You also need to peel away the tough and/or dirty outer layers of the lemongrass and green onions.
The goal here is to create a smooth paste from all the ingredients, and while the blender will do a lot of the hard work for you, it's a good idea to chop your fresh ingredients into manageable pieces first. I grate the ginger on the large holes of a box grater (don’t skip this; it keeps your curry from having fibrous stringy bits), and cut the lemongrass and green onions into 2-inch pieces.
In my opinion, you can never have too much lime juice in your curry paste. I juice two limes to get about ¼ cup of juice. Later I serve the finished curry with extra lime wedges to make sure I get my fix.
I use an entire bunch of cilantro, and all you need to do in terms of prep is trim off the tough, dry ends of the stems, then rinse and chop the whole bunch. The Thai basil, however, needs a little more help before it’s ready for processing. Pluck the leaves from the woody stems until you get a nice big heap of basil leaves (you are shooting for a cup here).
Both the cilantro and basil need to be rinsed clean before they get added to the blender, and my favorite way to do this is to toss the prepped herbs into the basket of a salad spinner and rinse them under cold water, tossing the leaves with your fingers to be sure that each one is completely free of dirt. Once the leaves are clean, put the basket into the salad spinner and give it a few good spins to remove the water. Then just chop and measure.
While some might like it hot, others—myself included—need to get rid of the seeds and ribs of the Thai chile peppers to tame the heat. The rounded edge of a ¼-teaspoon measure is just the right size and shape to scrape the seeds away from the chile peppers with a minimum of mess and effort.
I like to eke out the maximum flavor from each ingredient in my curry paste. For the spices (cumin and cardamom), I recommend looking for whole spices and grinding them yourself. Spices stay fresher longer if they're stored whole and deliver a bigger punch of flavor if you grind them as you need them. If you don't have the time, energy, or option to grind your own, pre-ground spices are okay too. To deepen their flavor, toast them first by heating them in a skillet until they darken in color and start to smell fragrant.
Once you've prepped all the ingredients, it's go time. Toss all that carefully prepared green stuff into the bowl of a blender. Add your spices, lime juice, and fish sauce and put on the lid.
This is a pretty thick paste, so it might be tough to break everything down in the blender without adding some extra liquid. After four to five 1-second pulses, I scrape down the sides of the blender and add my coconut milk. This loosens up the roughly chopped mixture and makes it easier to process down to a fairly smooth paste. Keep pulsing the curry paste until it's mostly smooth. You don't want any big chunks of lemongrass or garlic, but you'll never get a perfectly smooth paste. In the end, the texture will be similar to that of pesto: No pieces larger than the head of a pin should be present.
I usually use about a quarter cup in a recipe as soon as it's done and freeze the rest. A great trick for freezing the leftover curry paste is to use an ice cube tray. Each cube holds about 2 tablespoons, which is enough for a single-person serving of curry. Fill a tray with the leftover paste and freeze for at least 6 hours. Then transfer the cubes to a zipper-lock bag. They’re ready to use whenever the urge strikes. Just make sure to dedicate a specific ice cube tray to this purpose—unless you like spicy ice.