A dash of curry powder can bring even the most incongruous savory foods together, as our writer discovered in a recent no-recipe cooking breakthrough.
You know those nights when you’re have a showdown with your pantry and the knobs and bits kicking around your fridge? When you’ll be darned if you’re leaving the house to get that one ingredient you need? I had one of those recently. I had a cold so I didn’t want to hit the grocery store, I was on a tight budget, and I had to hack my way to dinner with what I had.
Curry should have occurred to me much sooner than it did. I’ve certainly been cooking a ton of them lately, and I’d been stocking my Indian and Thai pantry for just this sort of emergency. I had the coconut milk, the curry powder, and the golden vadouvan. I also had a gorgeous globe eggplant from the farmer’s market, tofu, four hairy ends of scallions, an inch-long knob of ginger on its last legs, rice, and the crumbly remains of two roasted peanut jars.
Thai and Indian cooks have, of course, combined eclectic produce and meat by using curries for thousands of years, so this should have been a no-brainer for me right up there with frittatas, quiches, and stir-fries. In America, in fact—according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, which you can buy here—curry powder has been in wide use since the 19th century.
In 1893 Mrs. Alexander Orr Bradley published the book Beverages and Sandwiches, which boasted twenty-seven sandwich recipes including “unusual sandwiches filled with woodcock, imported Italian tuna, tuna roe, and imported Roquefort, Gruyère, Brie, and Neufchâtel cheeses.” (Who wouldn’t want a woodcock-and-Roquefort sandwich?) Mrs. Bradley’s “early fillings and condiments included lettuce, ketchup, mustard, curry powder, pickles, and mayonnaise.” Curry powder! We’ve been using it in a pinch for a long time.
I was craving peanut, coconut, eggplant and tofu together—a combination I’d never pulled off on my own—and I couldn’t find a recipe online. I was hesitant; I’d never made a tofu peanut curry, nor one containing eggplant, and the first curry I ever cooked was my most disastrous dish of all time. In college, at the tail end of chopping a dozen vegetables and carefully seasoning my golden curry, I threw a banana in. Perhaps an actual monkey would have enjoyed that curry. Humans, not so much.
In the end, I decided to use my current curry chops: Start with sautéing garlic, ginger, and scallions together in oil, then add spices, then deglaze with fish sauce and coconut milk. The nuts would go into a high-powdered blender with the coconut milk for an easy-breezy peanut coconut sauce. The eggplant would be pan-fried so I didn’t create oil-splattered chaos. I used my editor Darcy’s great recipe for rice. Then it was off to the races, with some restraint with the spices that made for a delicate, unctuous final dish—the eggplant creamy and delightful.
Here’s my recipe—which I’ve only tested once so far. It is the best curry I’ve ever made. Tweak as your heart desires. Swap out scallion whites for shallots or white onion. Don’t have eggplant? Throw in some roasted cauliflower or broccoli. No tofu? Try leftover chicken, pork, or beef. Everything is optional, including the fistful of pale, about-to-go-South basil I clutched from the dying plant on my windowsill. But man, were the results divine.
Peanut Eggplant Tofu Curry
- 1 medium-sized (3/4-lb to 1 lb) globe eggplant
- 1/2 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- One 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
- 4 ounces of roasted, salted peanuts
- 1 one-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 scallions, white and light green parts only, minced
- Fish sauce, to taste
- 1/2 tablespoon yellow curry powder
- 1/2 tablespoon vadouvan
- 1 package of firm tofu, pressed and dried, cut into ½-inch cubes
- Lemon or lime juice, to taste
- Basil, for serving (Optional)
1. Slice eggplant into ½-inch rounds, lining a colander with them. Salt on both sides, and let sit for 30-45 minutes. Slice into ½-inch strips and dry well.
2. Meanwhile, cook rice to taste, and set aside, covered.
3. In a large glass dish or bowl, toss eggplant strips carefully with cornstarch, to coat. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet until it shimmers. Add eggplant strips in batches, flipping after about two minutes, and cook until each side is golden or slightly browned. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate. Repeat until all eggplant is cooked, adding more oil to pan if need be. Set aside. Discard any burned bits, but leave oil in skillet and reserve.
4. Add peanuts to blender. Mill until finely chopped. Add coconut milk. Puree until smooth.
5. Set skillet with its oil over medium-low heat. Add ginger, garlic and scallions, stirring frequently. If needed, deglaze pan with fish sauce to remove stuck bits. When scallions are soft, but before garlic browns, add curry powder and vadouvan. Stir frequently for one minute. Carefully add peanut-coconut mixture to pan, stirring well to ensure nothing is stuck to skillet. Add tofu and simmer over low heat for 6-8 minutes, until mixture has thickened slightly.
6. Turn off heat. Add eggplant to curry, to warm it. Season with fish sauce and lime or lemon juice, to taste. Garnish with basil. Serve immediately.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.