Doctor up ready-made Thai curry pastes by adding fresh aromatics

Thai red curry noodles with vegetables.
Thai red curry noodles with vegetables. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Simmered with a little coconut milk, Thai red curry paste becomes a fragrant, spicy sauce for all manner of meat, fish, vegetables, tofu or noodles.
Simmered with a little coconut milk, Thai red curry paste becomes a fragrant, spicy sauce for all manner of meat, fish, vegetables, tofu or noodles.PHOTO: NYTIMES

 (NYTIMES) - Thai red curry paste is the condiment that has started a thousand meals in my kitchen.

Simmered with a little coconut milk, it becomes a fragrant, spicy sauce for all manner of meat, fish, vegetables, tofu or noodles. It is fast, convenient and tasty – better than my local takeout – which is all I ask for on most days of the week. 

There are, however, times when I crave something a little more ambitious, a dish that is deeper, more complex and closer to the curries I can get in a good Thai restaurant. But I want it without having to track down the galangal, lime leaves and dried shrimp necessary to make an authentic Thai red curry paste from scratch. 

Doctoring up the stuff in the jar is a good middle ground. 

The prepared paste has the base flavour that I can build on by adding a few fresh aromatics – ones that I can easily pick up en route from the subway to my front door – garlic, chillies, cilantro, ginger and shallot. These can revive even an old half-used jar (the one that lives behind the miso and the tahini), giving it brightness and verve. 

If you cannot find lemongrass easily, feel free to leave it out. There is already some in the jarred paste. And if you are lucky enough to come across a bumpy-skinned and highly aromatic makrut lime, whirl its zest and juice into the paste in place of the regular lime. It will make the curry even livelier. 

Once you have done your shopping and chopping, the paste comes together quickly in the blender and you will have enough left over to make this dish again. Store the extra paste in the refrigerator for up to three weeks or the freezer for up to three months. 

As for the noodles themselves, use any kind of thin noodles you like. Even gluten-free varieties work well as long as you do not overcook them.

I generally lean towards skinny Chinese egg noodles because I like the added richness of the yolk. But springy rice noodles are a close second. 

This dish requires a bit more work than your average weeknight dinner and a lot more work than ordering in. But with its gorgeous combination of crunchy vegetables, slippery noodles and heady sauce, no one will ever guess it all started in a jar. 

Thai Red Curry Noodles With Vegetables

INGREDIENTS
For the paste
¼ cup lightly packed cilantro leaves and stems (white roots, too, if available)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 shallot, sliced
1 fresh hot red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
2 Tbs prepared Thai red curry paste
1 Tbs coconut oil
1 Tbs grated fresh ginger
1 lemongrass stalk, tough outer leaves trimmed off, inner leaves finely chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tsp Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon curry powder
¾ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground coriander

For the noodles
3 Tbs coconut oil
140g sliced shiitake mushrooms (about three cups)
6 scallions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 fresh hot red chilli, seeded and thinly sliced
Kosher salt
110g thin dried noodles, such as ramen, egg noodles, rice noodles
1 can full-fat coconut milk
1½ Tbs Asian fish sauce, more to taste
Juice of ½ lime, plus more to taste
1 cup sliced red bell pepper
1 cup sliced snow peas or green beans
140g baby bok choy, spinach or tatsoi torn into bite-size pieces
Lime wedges, for garnish

Optional garnishes (use all or any combination of the following): ½ cup thinly sliced radishes; torn basil, mint, or cilantro leaves; sesame seeds; halved hard-cooked eggs

METHOD
1. Prepare the curry paste: In a blender or mini food processor, combine cilantro, garlic, shallot, chilli, red curry, coconut oil, ginger, lemongrass, zest and juice of 1 lime, fish sauce, curry powder, cumin and coriander. Blend into a paste, scraping down the sides of the blender as needed. If mixture is too thick to blend, add 1 to 2 tsp of water as needed. 
2. In a large skillet, heat coconut oil over medium heat. Stir in mushrooms, half the scallions, garlic, chilli and a large pinch of salt. Saute until golden for 10 to 12 minutes. 
3. Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside. 
4. Stir ¼ cup curry paste mixture into skillet and cook until fragrant and darkened, for one to two minutes. Stir coconut milk into skillet along with remaining 1½ Tbs fish sauce, and juice of ½ lime. 
5. Add red pepper, snow peas and ½ tsp salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, for three to five minutes. Stir in bok choy and cook until wilted for two to four minutes longer. 
6. Fold in noodles, tossing until coated with sauce and heated through. Add fish sauce or lime juice to taste, and pass lime wedges at 
the table. Top with remaining scallions and any of the optional garnishes. Serve with lime wedges on the side.

Serves four