Red Spicebush Curry

IMG_8905.jpg
Some of the many possible ingredients to make a red spicebush curry – on the left are the only two essentials : fresh red spicebush berries and red chiles.

Spicebush is a versatile spice, whether dried or fresh. One of the best ways to experience that versatility is by making fresh spicebush berry-based curry pastes. In late spring and early summer, the fresh green berries can be combined with green chiles and aromatics to make a green curry paste. The most pronounced flavor change occurs in the berries when the seed emerges in mid-summer, inside the bright green fruit. Once the color change sets in the berries can be gathered and combined with red chiles to make a red curry paste.

Neither of these will taste identical to the classic green and red Thai curry pastes, unless you use only the traditional aromatics rather than wild ingredients. If you want to make an authentic Thai curry with spicebush as an added aromatic (and I can find no fault at all with that idea!) then you will be better served by simply adding some spicebush berries to a traditional recipe. My non-recipe recipe, which follows, is much more open-ended and designed to let you work with whatever native or imported, cultivated or wild  seasonings and aromatics you might have on hand.

This approach is one of proportions and seasonal, available ingredients. It changes every time I make it, and can include many different aromatics depending on what I have at hand and what I have in mind to use the curry paste with.

Combine in a food processor or mortar :

1/4 cup red spicebush berries, fresh not dried

4 oz red chiles, destemmed and deseeded (I don’t really care for my spice pastes to be super-hot, so that I can add fresh chiles or other hot spices to my final dishes. If you prefer a more traditionally hot paste, double the amount of chiles and use 8 oz.)

1 oz turmeric root or substitute turmeric powder at time of cooking

6 oz alliums and aromatic stalks and/or roots in any combination that makes sense to you : garlic, ginger, wild ginger, galangal, wild carrot root, wild parsnip root, angelica stems, lemongrass stalks, shallots, and leeks or spring onions are all viable options. (an example of how this breaks down from a recent version of this : 2 oz angelica stem, 2 oz shallots, 1 oz garlic, 1 oz wild ginger)

4-6 oz feral or cultivated apple or pear, or combination of apples and pears, and if desired other mealy/juicy rose family fruits such as hawthorns or rose hips. (optional – i add feral fruit generally just to thin out a paste if it is too heavy, or if I intend to use the paste primarily as a grilling medium)

2-4 tbs dried spices, cultivated or wild seeds, two or more of : cumin, coriander, wild carrot, wild parsnip, pushki, black or wild mustard, fenugreek, etc. Any wild or cultivated seeds that you would use in a dried curry mix are good to use here. I generally follow the ratio (used in many traditional masalas) of combining equal parts cumin and coriander seed, accented with smaller amounts of other spices. In lieu of coriander I often use one of the wild carrot family members whose seeds have a “coriander-like” quality. In my area those are wild carrot, pushki and wild parsnip.

1 tbs ground sumac (optional)

handful of turning sassafras or spicebush leaves (sassafras will be yellow, orange or red, spicebush yellow) (optional)

grated zest of chinese bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata), kaffir lime or other citrus (optional)

1 tbs shrimp paste (optional, but adds intense depth of flavor and that oily ring of authenticity)

Process until smooth. A food processor is the easiest fix for this, but I recommend chopping into small pieces most of what you add. Cloves of garlic should be crushed. Dried leaves should be crumbled. Stringy things like leeks, angelica, or lemongrass should be cut into small pieces across the grain. If you want to prepare this more traditionally, a mortar and pestle works fine with a bit of pre-chopping and patience. I don’t mind a coarse grain with this, as is obvious from the picture below, but you can go coarser or finer as you like.

Red spicebush curry paste will store in the fridge for a few weeks, but I recommend putting recipe-size batches in small jars and freezing them.

IMG_9062.jpg
The color of red spicebush curry paste is generally a bit more orange than red.

As to using this concoction? Certainly any traditional recipe which calls for a Thai red curry paste can be made, substituting this. The flavor will of course vary from that of the traditional, but the results will doubtless be delicious.

I prefer to use my curry pastes, especially if I have loaded them with native or locally-grown ingredients, with local vegetables, seafoods and meats. I particularly enjoy the red spicebush curry paste with autumnal and winter vegetables like squash, beets, potatoes, leeks, evening primrose and other root vegetables. Shrimp and squid are fantastic grilled in the paste, with a little miring or vinegar or chile sauce added to thin out the mix. Fantastic curry soups can be made with lentils, sweet potatoes, and so on, simply cooked in broth and pureed with curry paste. I find it works equally well thinned or mellowed with coconut milk, broth, yogurt, or wild bark teas. A simple vegetable dip fit for the gods can be made by combining spicebush curry paste, miso and homemade yogurt.

IMG_9100.jpg
A curry of blue hubbard squash with red spicebush curry paste. 
Advertisements

Pumpkin Wild Curry

IMG_3867.jpg

An easy and delicious curry perfect for my nearly-wild curry mix, or any good homemade mix from wild or cultivated spices. I like to use this recipe to test out different combinations or variations on my wild or cultivated curry mixes, since it has a very simple set of ingredients that I almost always have on hand in the fall and winter. It’s the perfect test recipe to use for your own variations and experiments – the tartness of the tomatoes is softened by the sweetness of pumpkin (calabaza squash works great too), creating a perfect canvas for your spice combination!

This recipe works great on the stovetop, but can also be made in a slow-cooker. When I cook stews like this in a slow-cooker, I don’t simply add everything at once, but follow the basic procedure for stovetop cooking, adding the ingredients in stages to the slow-cooker set on high.

Combine in a pan or slow-cooker

2 tbs neutral vegetable oil

2 tbs ground curry powder, masala mix, or near-wild curry mix

4 oz onion, minced  (grated if using slow-cooker)

2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced

3/4 cup chopped canned tomatoes, strained of juice

Cook until onions are softened (10 minutes stovetop, 1 hour slow-cooker), then add:

1 lb. pumpkin or calabaza squash, cut into chunks

3/4 cup tomato juice or stock or nettle tea or water

1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water

Cover and cook until pumpkin is softened and liquid is somewhat reduced (45 minutes stovetop, 3-4 hours slow cooker)

This is excellent served over brown rice or lentil dal. I like to add a little chopped fresh cilantro, wild chervil, pushkin or other aromatic herb leaf. I also recommend combining with tart fermented vegetables or torn bitter leaves of wild or cultivated greens, such as dames rocket, dandelion, or escarole. To tart things up a bit, dried coconut flakes (unsweetened), crushed cashews, fermented chile sauces, grated lemon zest, and thinly sliced thai basil leaves are all good options. But the beauty of this recipe is it is so simple it can be accompanied with whatever is handy.

Nearly Wild Curry Mix

IMG_0914.jpg

Curry powder always seemed to me a shabby thing to buy, it being so much more interesting to work with the whole spices themselves. I was spurred on by one of the first cookbooks I ever bought, a collection of recipes and information about spices published to sell the goods of a local spice importer. By understanding the spices individually, I was able to experiment with them culinarily, adding more or less to a mix depending on what I intended to do with them. Cardamom and cloves, for instance, could be added if I was using a mix to spice tea or desserts with. I would add more dried curry leaves and turmeric when making a mix for fish.

When I began to seriously incorporate more of the native and invasive wild spices of the world of wild food, it wasn’t a great stretch of the imagination to start to envision a masala or curry mix made entirely of foraged aromatics. And while an excellent entirely wild curry mix can be made, I usually find that I miss the cumin acutely. For day to day use and especially when replacing imported curry powder in traditional recipes, I have settled on a curry mix that is “nearly wild,” relying only mainly on foraged ingredients. It is also quite flexible, and may be adapted, altered or expanded by anyone who uses it, with many replacements or omissions possible. I believe it can be used in most temperate climates without too much trouble, assuming the availability of traditional imported spices to replace what cannot be foraged.

I have omitted any turmeric or substitute for turmeric in this recipe. To many, the taste and color of curries cannot be separated from that spice. Now that organic fresh turmeric is much more widely available, I use it in these curries, when it can be added at the time of cooking. You may wish to add that or the powdered form to affect a more traditional coloration. I sometimes add annatto seed instead for “local color,” but of course the color is a different one. Below is the recipe, see notes after the recipe for information on substitutions. I have deliberately split the list of ingredients into three groups.

 

Combine :

 

1 ) essential bases

1 tbs. black mustard seed (wild or domestic)

1 tbs. cumin seed

1 tbs. wild parsnip or pushki or coriander seed

1-2 tsp wild carrot seed (optional, omit if using coriander seed)

 

2) optional aromatics

2-3 northern bayberry leaves or 1-2 bay leaves or 8 curry (kari) leaves

1-2 tsp ripened (red) spicebush berries, dried or 1/2-1 tsp allspice

1-2 magnolia buds, dried or pinches of magnolia leaf or 1 clove

1 tsp american juniper berries or 1/4 tsp european juniper

1-3 eastern hemlock cones

 

3) “hot” or piquant aromatics

1-2 tsp prickly ash berry or sichuan peppercorn

1-3 tsp waterpepper seeds (or 1/2-1 tsp black peppercorns)

1-2 tsp chile flakes or 1-3 small dried hot chiles

 

Combine all the above in a heavy pan and heat over low to medium heat, tossing every thirty seconds or so, until the spices are toasted and fragrant. You can also store the mix, combined and use as whole spices in pickles or broths, or toast and grind it to order, which will give the best flavor. My only advice would be to use the whole recipe when grinding or using to infuse, as the many different-sized and shaped ingredients tend to separate themselves in the jar.

The trinity of mustard-cumin-wild parsnip is essential to this mix, nearly everything else can be omitted or varied. If using domesticated mustard seed, the variety to use is the brown or black mustard seeds preferred in Indian cuisine. Wild mustard genera which produce seeds that can be used for this include Brassica, Lepidium, Barbarea, Thlaspi, etc. Wild parsnip or pushki (Heracleum maximum, other edible Heracleum species can be substituted) seed, along with wild carrot seed all bear some resemblance to family member coriander. Pushki and wild parsnip have a drier, earthier flavor to them while wild carrot is spicier and lightly citrus-y. Always remember to avoid wild carrot seed if pregnant or desiring to become so–while I doubt that the small amount involved would have much effect unless consumed in massive quantities, wild carrot seed is traditionally considered an abortifacient.

The second group of aromatics are all wild but any can be omitted or substituted with the imported spices listed, with the exception of hemlock cones, which really have no parallel. If there is one wild spice in this group that I would strongly recommend investigating (and not replacing with allspice, which is a paltry substitute), it is spicebush. Native to the eastern US, it is a native understory tree which produces a green berry in summer that matures to a deep red in autumn. It is resinous and pungent and can be used ripe or unripe, fresh or dried. It has become inseparable from various curry mixes and is the most distinctive background player in this recipe, in my opinion.

Heat can be regulated by adjusting the last group of ingredients, which is in part why I have left a range for those items. I would describe this mix as moderately spicy, but not extremely so, even if using the larger numbers and including all three hot items. For a heavier spice, simply add more of whichever piquant aromatic you prefer.