Greetings from the frozen depths of central Queens! This winter is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory in NYC, but bad winters mean one thing to me and that’s staying inside and making good curries. Curries have roots in mild, often tropical climates but it’s the riot of spices and vegetables performing culinary kung fu that kicks the hell out of most any frozen day.
Sweet winter squash is the obvious choice ingredient for a mid-January Sri Lankan style pumpkin curry. One of my favorite aromatic herbs unique to this dish are frozen rampe (RAHM-peh) leaves (as seen in the photo above), also known as pandan, the awesomely sophomoric sounding screwpine or if packaged in Thailand, bai toey. My friend Danaher–who’s been schooling me in Sri Lankan cuisine since last year–opened my eyes to rampeh last year at his annual birthday dinner that’s a virtual Sri Lankan curry-a-thon. Since then I’ve been hooked on this grass-like herb, obsessed with how a few stalks rampe infuses into food the mouthwatering aroma of gentle citrus and toasted vanilla. That particular flavor really blooms in this sweet, mellow winter squash curry, but if you can’t find rampe near you don’t hesitate to make a batch without it.
But with a little help from online shopping it’s possible to get that authentic flavor with pandan essence, if you can’t find the frozen leaves at an ethic grocery that stocks Southeast Asian goods. My friend usually makes a special trip to Kalustyan’s in Manhattan to replenish his frozen rampe stash, but I found mine for a paltry $1.30 at a tiny Thai grocery in Woodside in the Queens. Without further ado, my favorite pumpkin curry recipe, at least this week, great with any aromatic rice or even a crusty baguette. If you do go for the rice, try poking a few strips of frozen rampe into the rice just before covering for the final simmer for an extra splash of that exquisite vanilla creme aroma.
If good quality pumpkins are in short supply near you (they are by me), butternut and kabocha squash are usually plentiful, of decent enough quality and always make for tasty curry. If using kabocha you may need to cut down on the final simmer: this starchy squash cooks somewhat faster than it’s crisper cousins.
2 lbs pumpkin, butternut or kabocha squash
1 medium red onion
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 tablespoon vegetable or coconut oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
4-6 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
4-6 three inch pieces of frozen rampe leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1-2 dried hot red chile peppers (optional)
¾ teaspoon sea salt or to taste
One 3 inch cinnamon stick
1 cup coconut milk (reduced fat coconut milk is fine)
½ cup vegetable broth
1. Wash the squash, removing any dirt or debris. With a sharp Y-shaped vegetable peeler scrape off the skin and remove the seeds and the stringy flesh around the seeds. Cut the squash into 1 inch cubes. Peel and roughly chop the onion, then place along with the garlic into the bowl of a food processor.
2. Over a low heat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, dry roast the coconut until golden brown, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Watch carefully, as the coconut will appear not to be doing anything then bam!, suddenly roasted coconut. Just as the coconut is starting to get dark pour into the food processor along with the chopped garlic and onion. Add 2 tablespoons of water and grind to a smooth paste, stopping to scrap the sides of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula. In a separate clean spice grinder grind together coriander and cumin seeds, ground turmeric, and chile peppers.
4. In a large measuring cup combine the coconut milk with vegetable broth and salt. In a heavy pot with a lid add oil, heat over medium heat and the mustard seeds, cover and fry until the seeds begin to pop. Add the curry leaves and the ground spices, cover and fry for 30 seconds. Stir onion mixture into the sizzling spices, fry for 1 minute then add coconut milk mixture, cubed pumpkin and cinnamon stick. Partially cover and gently simmer for 15-20 minutes or until a fork easy pierces a tender chunk of pumpkin. If liquid level reduces too much add ¼ cup more broth or water, but not too much: the curry should be moist but not swimming in liquid. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 10 minutes and serve with hot cooked aromatic rice or Indian-style flatbread.