Sometimes it takes a waiter with attitude to remind me of the value of a great pantry.
We ordered a few different starters; I recall a tuna-avocado thing, and a nice salad with local greens. Ted chose a curried mussel stew, served with slices of baguette. While the other appetizers were good, the mussel stew was transcendent, and the four of us descended upon it until we'd dunked and devoured all of the bread and had to ask for more to mop up every bit.
When our waiter returned to clear the licked-clean soup bowl, we asked whether the chef would be willing to share the recipe.
Oh, it's not that hard, he replied. I'm sure you can figure it out.
And he walked away.
After a few seconds, we realized that no recipe would be forthcoming, but we agreed that yes, we surely could figure it out.
And so I returned to Rhode Island, to my well-stocked pantry, to extricate a can of coconut milk and my stash of red curry paste, for clearly those were the key ingredients in the mussel stew.
All curry pastes combine dry spices (such as coriander, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper) with "wet" or fresh ingredients: dried and fresh chile peppers, fish sauce, shrimp paste, herbs, garlic, galangal, kaffir lime zest or lime leaves, shallots and lemongrass. Red curry paste uses red chiles; green uses green chiles. The heat of the curry paste depends on the heat of the fresh and dried chiles.
Red curry paste, medium-hot, is the most versatile of all curry pastes; it's used with chicken, duck, beef, pork, tofu, shrimp and fish, and in noodle curries. Combined with coconut milk, it makes a fast-food sauce that accommodates the addition of any protein and vegetables.
There are so many recipes (including this vegan adaptation) for making your own red curry paste in a food processor or mortar and pestle, but nothing beats the convenience of having a jar in your pantry. Unopened, it will keep for years; once opened, it needs to be stored in the refrigerator, where it will last for six months or longer.
Red curry mussel stew
Adapted from the Fog City Diner Cookbook, published in 1993, which makes me wonder why the waiter didn't freely offer the recipe when we asked for it. Anyway, he was right; it is easy, and I had all of the ingredients except the fresh cilantro in my pantry. Serves 6.
4 dozen Prince Edward Island mussels or any small black mussels (2-1/2 lbs)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp peeled and grated ginger
1/4 cup peeled and diced tomato
1 Tbsp red curry paste
4 cups canned coconut milk
1 Tbsp chopped cilantro
6 sprigs cilantro, for garnish
Scrub the mussels well and de-beard (pull the beard -- the little stringy fibers hanging outside the mussel shell -- down toward the hinged point of the mussel; it might hold on for dear life, but pull hard, and it will come off).
Melt the butter in a large nonreactive saucepan, and sauté the garlic, ginger and tomato for 2 minutes. Add the curry paste and coconut milk, stirring until the paste dissolves. Add the mussels, cover, and steam until open, 3-6 minutes. Discard any mussels that do not open. Add the chopped cilantro. Serve in a large bowl with plenty of crusty sourdough bread for dipping, or divide into individual bowls, garnished with sprigs of cilantro.
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