Let’s face it: Cooking weeknight dinners can be pretty bleak. Getting to the grocery store can be tough, especially when the closest ones around are only accessible by car. This obstacle can make getting creative with a meal or spontaneously trying a new recipe difficult. Not to mention, who has the time?
However, using a little trick of mine, it’s possible to shake up your weekly routine with minimal effort. A single novel, adaptable pantry staple can easily transform any dinner, from sheet pan chicken and veggies to hearty soups. To kick a tired dinner up a notch, I’ve taken to using red curry paste. Though traditional recipes call for nearly a dozen ingredients, beaten to a creamy, vibrant mixture with a mortar and pestle, the bottled variety available at most grocery stores will do just fine — especially if you’re of limited means and time in the kitchen (side note: this is one of the rare occasions I advocate for anything storebought).
I first stumbled across strikingly colored paste, typical of most Thai curry dishes, while wandering the enticing, yet less commonly frequented food aisle containing rice noodles, fish sauces, canned chiles and kosher wines. Try as I might, I often stray from my modest, carefully composed grocery list when presented with the items in this aisle. I eagerly peruse the aisle with vivid dreams of whisking up authentic local cuisine — despite my minimal experience with these ingredients far outside the realm of my comfort zone. Their potential captures my curiosity, luring me with the possibility of trying my hand at a new, invigorating dish. Endless possibilities lay within the shelves of those aisles — anchored by the unfamiliar packaging and indecipherable lettering of foods far more exotic from the bland dishes I’ve grown accustomed to (and tired of).
Though I often marvel at these ingredients, and all the exciting new possibilities they hold, I often succumb to the overwhelming feeling of ineptitude in the face of learning to incorporate them into my standard fare. Feeling bold one day, I purchased the red curry paste. I had neither a recipe in mind, nor any idea how to use it in a dish, driven by an inkling that my bet would pay off. It’s remained a staple in my fridge ever since.
Given my unfamiliarity with methods of incorporating the spice into traditional curry dishes, I opted for a more improvised use. After mixing with shallots and garlic sizzling in vegetable oil until soft and fragrant, I add a can of coconut milk for a sweet, rich flavor and silky consistency. Once simmering, you can add any variety of vegetables — I used spinach, thinly sliced bell peppers, chickpeas and roasted sweet potato or eggplant (note: the sweet potato can be cooked until tender in the sauce, or roasted in the oven until just crisp for a sweeter, deeper flavor). The wilted greens add a nutty flavor that complements the sweetness of the coconut milk and heat of the curry, and the chickpeas and bell peppers can be cooked until just beginning to lose their crunch. This allows them to maintain their texture while adding a satisfying variety to consistency of the stewed ingredients. A pinch of salt and pepper can be added, but definitely isn’t needed — the curry paste packs its own unique flavor. I also had some cumin, paprika and cinnamon on hand, and threw a few dashes of those in as well for a sweeter, smokier flavor. As versatile a dish as the ingredient that serves as its foundation, it can be eaten plain or over a bowl of rice (or any grain of your choosing). If you have a protein like chicken, shrimp or tofu on hand, I would recommend adding it as well by cooking in the pan before adding the shallots and garlic, and seasoning lightly with salt and pepper, then adding the remaining ingredients in.
An ingredient that once seemed so daunting became one of my pantry staples. The paste is not only a handy tool to amplify any meal, but incredibly easy to use — even for kitchen novices. A little adventurousness can certainly go a long way. I’ve experimented with the paste, rubbing it on acorn and butternut squash and roasting until tender and caramelized. The blend of spices pairs well with almost any vegetable, grain dish or soup and has a nice added kick of heat that is balanced by the slight acidic bite of lemongrass and kaffir lime.
Sometimes, the unexpected harmony between the surprise of an uncommon ingredient and the comfort an adaptable dish is all it takes to alter a dull routine.