Thai Coconut Curry & Honeymoon

Friends, it’s been awhile! Too long. Since our last encounter I’ve changed my last name and went on a honeymoon to Costa Rica. It was thirteen days and it was lovely. Waterfalls, Howler Monkeys, and Coatis, or “nose bears,” were the highlights and a wicked sunburn was the low. 

I couldn’t fit the whole waterfall in this shot but there’s the hubs  swimming next to it! 

Arenal Volcano… yes, volcano.

Being the longest vacation either of us had ever taken, on day eleven we each confessed that we were ready to go home. Ready to get back to our own bed, anxious to get those thank you cards out, and excited to finally get the house in order . Maybe the last two were just me. I was also ready to get back to cooking. We both were burnt out on too-busy/wedding-prep/vacation food- simple carbs, refined sugars, even pop! gasp!

I’ve been dreaming of these, my lentil burgers, and maybe another round of cold buckwheat soba noodles. Alas, this past week did not allowed for much cooking. Our tasks to straighten up after the wedding (getting the many something-borrowed items back to the right people, cleaning a very messy home, writing many thank you cards, making a giant goodwill pile out of old muffin pans and the like, taking all the cardboard shipped presents came in to the homeless shelter, etc.) took for-ev-er. All very wonderful problems to have, no?! The hubs had to leave Wednesday morning for work and wasn’t back until Monday night, plus I was traveling over the weekend- so it just didn’t make sense to go stock the fridge with crisp fruits and veggies that would inevitably wilt before we had a chance to enjoy them.

Thus, we did a lot of take-out. The house is finally starting to look like a home and not a war zone, however, recently there’s been much more resturanting than preferred.  The upside is that one of these meals out inspired me to find an at-home-version.

If you haven’t been fortunate to become acquainted with much Thai food, please allow me to introduce Panang curry. The true-blue recipe is complex if you don’t typically use thai ingredients like dehydrated shrimp, but produces an incredibly delicious result. My version of the recipe will be simplified for us beginner home cooks and give you some whole food benefits.

whole cumin

Turmeric and fresh chillies have immune-boosting power. The brown rice instead of white gives the dish a high fiber count and is rich in selenium, which studies claim reduces the risk for developing cancer, heart disease and arthritis. Additionally, one cup of brown rice provides 80% of our daily manganese requirements, which helps the body synthesize fats and benefits our nervous and reproductive systems. Coconut milk will give the dish a wonderful cream, without leaving out your lactose intolerant or paleo friends. Further, while coconut oil/milk does have a lot of saturated fats, it is debatable whether that is a bad thing. The saturated fat in coconut oil/milk is plant-based and breaks down in the body somewhat differently than saturated fat from animals. Many researchers claim that this fat may actually lead to an increase of HDL – or good – cholesterol levels. Coconut oil and milk also contain Lauric acid, which may work as an anti-bacterial agent, helping your body fight off unwanted bacteria, such as staph. That being said, some of the research out there causes me to go at coconut oils and milks in moderation. But really, isn’t that always the key?

I always order Panang with chicken though it is traditionally made with beef and can be prepared with pork too. It usually comes with a side of white rice and a vegetable. The first time I had it the curry was made with some chicken and tons of green beans. Other times it has been served with steamed broccoli but I much prefer the green beans. Of course the green veggies are going to serve up a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you have the beans on the side they stay crisp until making it to table, where, if it’s my plate, it will end up mixed into a big bowl of deliciousness. I went ahead and threw mine into the curry sauce to save dirtying up another pot. It’s spicy enough that you’ll stop eating when you run out of water, but not painful. (Unlike the hub’s experience with “authentic thai heat” at noodlehead in Pittsburgh the first night of our honeymoon. A restaurant I highly recommend, btw. I had the Chiang Mai Curry which was some sort of heaven, but a much more complicated dish that I will leave for the professionals at this time… humm when’s the next time I’ll be in Pittsburgh?)

Not-so-traditional Panang Curry

Adapted from
Note: Takes about an hour and a half to prepare and cook. There is a good bit of prep work but then it just simmers on the kitchen stove for a long time. I served mine with brown rice. This makes a pretty big recipe, so use a big pan for the curry!

  • 3 chicken breasts cut into bite-sized pieces or small slices. Can substitute other meats, even shirmp.
  • Every recipe I researched called for kaffir lime leaves, but they aren’t available where I’m from so I substituted bay leaves during the simmer and some lime zest.
  • 1 red bell pepper or sweet red pepper, slice.
  • 1/2 loose cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped or tore up.

Curry Sauce: 

  • 4 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 small white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 thumb-size piece ginger, finely minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced 
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. fish sauce (If you don’t want to experiment with fish sauce, or if you’re allergic, you could try using a few drops of Worcestershire or more soy sauce with an extra squeeze of lime juice.)
  • 1 tsp. shrimp paste  I just substituted 2 Tbsps more of fish sauce to save $ and on the ew factor. Additionally some sites recommend avoiding shrimp paste if you are preggo, get heartburn, or are on a reduced salt diet. Shrimp paste is not a health food.
  • 1 Tbsp. paprika
  • 1 Tbsp. chili powder (I used what I had, smoked paprika and smoked chili powder. If you have regular, use it- the smoked flavor made it taste a little more southwest and less thai.)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. whole cumin
  • 1-2 red chili, minced, OR 1/2 to 1 tsp. cayenne pepper or chili flakes to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp. nutmeg (Fresh nutmeg is stronger, more aromatic than the pre-ground stuff- so use less if you wield a trusty micrograter like moi’.)
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 can good-quality coconut milk
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  1. Blend all curry sauce ingredients – except the whole cumin seeds – in a vita-mix or food processor. (I forgot to hold my cumin seeds- darn!)
  2. Start browning chicken (or your meat of choice) and add in cumin seeds and cook until fragrant  Pour curry sauce into pan before meat is cooked through. 
  3. Add in the lime (or lime leaves) mix well 
  4. Cover and stir occasionally until chicken is cooked through. In last 3 minutes add peppers to top of curry and cover, do not stir in. Steam green beans (or broccoli or whatever) on the side(or throw into curry 10 minutes before cooking time is finished)
  5. Season to taste: add more fish sauce if not salty enough; add more coconut milk or a little yogurt if too spicy; add more lime juice if too salty.
  6. Sprinkle with fresh basil leaves and serve with your veggie and brown, whole-grain rice.

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