First, let me heap praise on a cook book: Jane Lawson’s wonderful “Cooking Curries“. Every double-page consists of one or two recipes and a gorgeous colour photograph. She covers the widest range of curries from the obvious — India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, for example — to the more obscure — such as Goa, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bali, and Kenya. Under her steady guidance, I have learned to mix and make a dozen or more new curry pastes, and she has really taken my hand and led me to a new confidence in using coconut milk and different fruits in my cooking. I picked the book up by chance from Book Warehouse for $7.99 more than a decade ago and have derived hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of education and pleasure from her writing. This was probably the best buy I ever made in a cookbook.
Some time ago, I wanted to cook supper and had actually remembered to get some chicken breasts out of the freezer to thaw in the morning. I had also vaguely decided that I would make something from “Cooking Curries” and had picked up a stem of lemongrass and some fresh cilantro from Chinatown. Other than that, I had no real idea of what I was going to do. As I slowly sauteed the chicken pieces in an oil and crushed lemongrass mix, I scanned my way through the book until “thai red duck curry with pineapple” caught my eye. I chose it because I knew I had most (not all) of the stuff needed to make the red curry paste. The fact that I didn’t have either duck or pineapple was of no concern: I had sauteed chicken and — at the perfect suggestion of my wife — mandarin orange segments.
To cut a fun time of chopping and boiling and simmering and stirring short, we ended up with a pretty darned good meal. A chicken curry over rice, sweetened with coconut milk and orange segments (which, like good anchovies, had melted away leaving just their umami essence), seasoned with a hot red paste (made from homegrown Thai peppers, I am proud to say), and with strong Thai undertones from the lemongrass, lemon zest and fresh cilantro.
The late Vancouver chef James Barber taught that you make do with the ingredients you have; that you cannot not cook something just because you are missing an item from a list; that the spirit and love you put into cooking is almost as important as basic technique. Combining this ethos with Jane Lawson’s already inventive recipes allowed me that night to fully experience the joy of cooking.