Curry Come Quickly

This week's sudden downward shift in temperature had much of the country (including Key West where my brother reports the coldest Jan. 3 in the island's history) running for flannel cover. Until last weekend, winter had been fairly kind to the Washington area; in fact, Mister MA and I broke out the grill on Christmas Day.

Lemongrass curry: Just what the meteorologist ordered. (Kim O'Donnel)

And then, just like a bad dream, those winds come and blow right through my new parka and chill every bone into paralysis. I know I must sound like a big cry baby to all you folks in perma-frosted points such as Iowa and Chicago (hi Nan), but my globally-warmed body is in thermal shock and I just can't get thaw! All week long, I've been wearing a hat indoors and the idea of venturing out into the world makes want to burrow deeper under the covers.

Yesterday, while my teeth chattered into their 72nd consecutive hour, I decided to stop being miserable and take action to reverse my weather-induced doldrums. With a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I flipped through cookbooks for warming inspiration. As much as I love soup, I knew it wouldn't have enough defrosting power. Under such extreme circumstances, I'd have to seek out the culinary equivalent of a turbo-charged radiator -- and that could only mean one thing: curry.

Just the idea of a spice-infused coconut milk simmering on the stove got the blood moving. I threw on my coat and headed for the neighborhood Thai grocery to pick up some lemongrass and coconut milk.

The recipe below, which comes from the beautifully photographed "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" by Andrea Nguyen, calls for a simple spice paste of lemon grass, ginger and onion (which I replaced with a few shallots), which you can pound in a mortar and pestle or pulverize in a blender or food processor.

Combined with curry powder, the paste develops a spicy personality, which mellows out in the coco-milk bath. Although the recipe calls for chicken, I can easily envision tweaking it for a meatless version. (See my suggestions at the end of the ingredient list.) Next time, I'll replace the red chile flakes with fresh chopped chiles, but that's because I like my curry hot, hot, hot. The spice factor is up to you.

In an about an hour and some change, I had my curry, over rice, in a big bowl. The thaw had begun. I could now remove my hat.

Chicken, Lemongrass and Potato Curry
(aka Ca-ri Ga)
Adapted from "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" by Andrea Nguyen

3 medium or 2 hefty stalks lemongrass, exterior layers removed, trimmed to about 8 eight inches, quartered lengthwise and coarsely chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped (alternatively, 3 shallots)
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
2 tablespoons Madras curry powder
1/2 teaspoon dried red chile flakes
2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs or drumsticks, skin removed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 can (13 ½ ounces) coconut milk (Chaokoh and Mae Ploy are preferred Thai brands)
1 1/2 pounds white or red boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (amounting to about 1 cup)
1 lime, cut into wedges

Other possible additions: 1 cup sweet potatoes, eggplant, green beans, mushrooms, plus chopped cilantro for garnish

Place lemongrass in the bowl of a food processor and pulverize for about three minutes, or until it is a fine, fluffy mass. Pause occasionally to scrape down sides of the bowl. Add ginger and pulse to chop finely. Add onion (or shallot) and process until mixture forms a paste.

In a large sauce pan or wok, heat oil over medium heat. Add lemongrass paste and saute for about two minutes, or until fragrant. Add curry powder and red chile flakes, and saute for about one minute. Season chicken with salt, and add to mixture, along with pepper and coconut milk. Liquid should cover chicken; if not, add water as needed. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, uncovered for about 40 minutes.

Add potatoes and return to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes. Turn off heat and cover.

Meanwhile, prepare a pot of rice or noodles. When ready to serve, taste curry, reheat and adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve in bowls with lime wedges.

Makes four entree-sized servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 4, 2008; 10:11 AM ET Chicken/Poultry , Hot Pot
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This looks amazing. I'm in cold weather shock myself, and last week I really enjoyed the heat of the African peanut curry casserole printed in the Post's food section. This one is next on my cooking list!

However, I don't think I'll be able to get the lemon grass as I live too far away from an Asian grocer. Would you recommend subbing lemon juice, or zest, or leaving it out altogether?

Posted by: Violet | January 4, 2008 10:45 AM

Hi Violet, I'm told you can substitute the zest of 1 lemon for every 2 lemongrass stalks. In this case, I would probably zest 2 lemons. I'll look around and see what you can get online as well.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 4, 2008 10:50 AM

Could you either post the recipe for the African peanut curry or provide a link to it, please? A search of the Post does not provide the correct result. Thanks!

Posted by: yeastcrazy | January 4, 2008 11:00 AM

Violet, I have definitely seen lemongrass at Whole Foods and I feel like I've seen it at one or two Safeways that have an "ethnic produce" section. Although I'm sure it's cheaper and probably better at an Asian grocer.

Kim, do you think the spice paste could be made in a blender?

Posted by: Allison | January 4, 2008 11:01 AM

I have found lemongrass at the local Giant and Harris Teeter - its relatively easy to find these days. I too would like the African peanut curry recipe!

Posted by: Megan | January 4, 2008 12:04 PM

I think the African peanut curry recipe is entitled "South African Vegetable Casserole" in the recipe database. The URL is

Posted by: BarbaraA | January 4, 2008 12:31 PM

I'd love to make this, but, given the amount of coconut milk in it, how bad is it for you?

Posted by: JS | January 4, 2008 12:54 PM

Allison, yes, I think you could give the blender a whirl.
JS, everything in moderation. You could also reduce coconut milk by half and replace with water. Don't worry, be happy.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 4, 2008 1:23 PM

Thanks so much for the curry recipe! Last night I made the 30 minute red lentil soup recipe (also on the Post site) because it reminded me of curry. It was soo good but definitely soupy! I think next time I'll cut out the water so it will thicken up a bit. BTW I used Lite coconut milk, which I found at Whole Foods but not at my local Safeway.

Posted by: monica | January 4, 2008 2:08 PM

Coming at you from miserable northern California, where right now the rain is driving, the basement is flooding, the temps are bone-chilling, and everything seems damp and clammy. Not to mention the on-and-off power outages...

Perfect recipe for a rotten weekend. Thanks much.

Kim: Safeway around here doesn't carry lemongrass but does carry a mush-in-a-tube in the cold produce section and it says it's just ground-up lemongrass. I'm sure 2/3 cup of this stuff would be too much. Any suggestions on using it?

Posted by: cold and wet | January 4, 2008 10:22 PM

Thanks for the tips everyone! I'm going to look for lemongrass today, and probably try my hand at this curry sometime this week. (the polenta and hoppin john both look very tempting as well). And you got the veg curry casserole link right, too. It is really hearty and delicious.

Posted by: Violet | January 7, 2008 10:45 AM

I tried this recipe but my curry was not green!

Posted by: Andrea | January 7, 2008 9:46 PM

Hi Andrea,
Despite the photo, the curry turns out more yellow than green...depending on your curry powder. Mine was yellow-brown, in fact. The lime wedge (and lemongrass references) might give impression that it's a green curry, but alas, it's not. If you added cilantro to your spice paste, you'd definitely have a green curry.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 8, 2008 2:02 PM

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